What's been missing for years in Hollywood's adventure films? Verisimilitude. Correspondent with the rise of the computers, and the ability to show us any place that filmmakers can imagine, has been the fall of immersiveness — that sense that the actors are in a place you can't go yourself rather than just standing against a digitized mock-up of one.
Contrast the rugged New Zealand beauty of The Fellowship of the Ring with the garish cartoonscapes of The Battle of the Five Armies and you'll see what we've lost. The backbreaking, finger-freezing shoot for Alejandro G. Iñárritu's frostbit survival thriller The Revenant is as good an explanation as any for why today's movies so often fail to get us to imagine we're someplace we couldn't be, the one baseline thing the studios used to get right. They're made by actors in front of green screens for the same reason your mother prefers to get that family portrait at Sears: A flat and stiff final product is a small price for ease and control.
What's marvelous about The Revenant is the improbable amount of control Iñárritu and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki seem to wield, even out in the wild. (Few scenes take place indoors.) To tell this simplest of revenge stories, set in the American Rockies in the 1820s, the production shot for months in inhospitable stretches of Canada and Argentina, relying on natural light and the cruel whims of the weather. But the camera glides and snakes through this wintry hell with all the dazzling fluidity Iñárritu displayed in Birdman. But here the dexterous long shots don't play like they are themselves the point. Iñárritu employs them when a moment benefits from being extended, often when to cut would be to offer us relief.
Early on, Pawnee ambush DiCaprio's Hugh Glass and his band of trappers; an intimate and ugly battle threads through the poplars, rich with brutal incident. In one wheeling and impossible shot, Iñárritu follows a trapper or a Pawnee, then another coming from another direction, and then another still. It's a nerve-racking breakthrough for depictions of battlefield chaos, and watching it is something like trying to drive for the first time through a Boston roundabout: Death can come from any direction.
Not long after, the routed trappers bicker at a makeshift mountain campsite with raw sky and stone behind and below them. They're furious, terrified, spitting lines at each other we don't quite catch, and the shot's length — its multiple set-ups and multiple dramas — seems to press in on them: This moment has carried on far too long. They need to run. We need them to run.
Not long after that comes the bear scene you might have heard about. It's another scene of bravura technique whose technique comes to be invisible — it's just an endless horror, the Bear Mauling Simulation App you never thought you could download, stretching on with a grim patience. Iñárritu is operating here not at the pace of movie set pieces but at the pace of a bear. DiCaprio's character doesn't get raped, as that trolling nonsense site the Drudge Report claimed, but the exhaustive, panting up-closeness of the scene is legitimately horrifying. It's not a sequence you watch; it's an encounter you get through.
That's the first of several instances in which Iñárritu seems to dare audiences to vacate the theater. There's an actual rape, later, visited upon the only woman Glass meets; there are many long, slogging minutes of near-death Glass crawling through snow or wheezing with ice in his beard; there's the Malickian zone-out shots of the moon and sun burning through clouds; there's the grunting lead performance from DiCaprio, who barely speaks as he grinds through the wilderness; there's Iñárritu's best-in-class take on the survive-the-night-in-a-carcass routine, with a steaming abundance of horse innards — it's Matthew Barney meets The Empire Strikes Back.
The Revenant was famously hard to shoot, but the filmmaking has a rare and confident vigor — you are always aware you're seeing the real world, even as Iñárritu's camera bounds through it like it's Skyrim. Birdman was impressive, but the technique always seemed to me to limit its actors, who had to deliver their monologues while constantly accommodating that camera's stunt work — and, denied the benefits of conventional editing, were stuck trying to power through the film's every mood-shift and transition on their own, in something like real time. Not so, here.
The sad thing, then, is that the story honored with such mastery is familiar journey/revenge stuff. Tom Hardy, bracing in a heel turn, plays the sumbitch who left DiCaprio's Glass to die. Glass has to heal and then hunt him down. As usual, DiCaprio's character has a dead-wife backstory; he's the old-school Disney hero of millennial prestige pictures, always robbed of his family so that he can have an adventure. Still, his performance is commanding, even when he's just lying there freezing to death, and there's power in his slow transformation from fragile Leo-cicle to vengeful snowbeast.
If you can work up interest in such meager material, the film is a chilling, stirring, experiential immersion in what life-and-death drama might actually feel like. DiCaprio's final showdown with Hardy, crashing through snowdrifts to an iced-over creek, is one of the great screen fights. You've sat through variations on every scene in The Revenant before, but you've probably never believed them. Iñárritu puts you there.