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 are made by actors in front of green screens: 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. 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 snakes through this wintry hell with all the dazzling fluidity Iñárritu displayed in Birdman.
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.
Iñárritu seems to dare audiences to vacate the theater. There are 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; there's Iñárritu's 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 sad thing, then, is that the story honored with such mastery is familiar journey/revenge stuff.