The wilderness in The Revenant is so forbiddingly grand, so austere and isolated, so gigantic that there are moments when you wonder, “How … actually … did they film this thing? No, seriously. I really want to know.” The Revenant does not feature a CGI-representation of an awe-inspiring and empty landscape, it appears to be the real deal. You wonder, even, where they put the cameras, and how they got the cameras to move in the way that they do. Even the mythical grizzly seems real (and it obviously isn’t).
The conditions of the shoot were, reportedly, terrible …
… although frankly I’m sick of hearing about it. It sounds self-congratulatory, similar to actresses informing everyone how much weight they gained for a particular role. (Vera Farmiga: “I gained 10 pounds for this part, and on me that’s a lot.” Direct quote from special features of Joshua. Stop it, Vera. Stop it. Gaining 10 pounds does not automatically make your performance better. I realize the culture has been brainwashed to think that stunts like weight gain/loss equal good acting, but at least don’t remind us how thin you normally are by saying “On me that’s a lot.” Gross.)
A lot of my response to the film was what I just mentioned: “How did they do this?” (Putting dolly tracks down the side of a mountain? Or a crane in the middle of a frozen lake? How about the real-life conditions for the actors? With their bare hands and all that.) Sometimes the “How did they do this?” thought, if it becomes too loud, means the movie is a show-off. Iñárritu is a showoff, and I was one of those hearty and terrified people who dared to dislike Birdman at a time when people were saying stuff like, “If you don’t like Birdman, I question your humanity.” Consider myself questioned. Every so often a film comes along like that that generates what Pauline Kael called the “incense burning” reaction. Even if you said, “I didn’t like it” in a calm manner, people were insulted and shocked anyway as THOUGH you had screamed “You are stupid for liking this film” when I would never say something like that. (It’s always interesting when people are shocked that their taste is not universal. I’m too much of a weirdo to ever assume that 99% of the population will agree with me about anything.) So that “showoff” thing which made the opening of Birdman the funnest part (when it begins to dawn on you that it’s all one take) is part of Iñárritu’s style – or, not style so much as showmanship personality, and it is audacious and bold and, to some degree, entertaining. I like watching a film and wondering, “Wow. This must have been so difficult to pull off.” But being difficult doesn’t necessarily equal deep, though, so try not to be fooled. Keep your wits about you!
The Revenant is based on the true story of this charming individual.
Hugh Glass was a fur-trapper who, during an 1823 expedition, startled a mama grizzly bear (her two cubs trailing behind her). Feeling the threat to her cubs, she flipped out on him and tore him to shreds. He killed the bear, and survived the attack, but he was so injured that his fellow trappers (desperate to get the pelts back to the fort 200 miles away and terrified of the hostile Native American tribes who had already been ambushing their expedition) left him for dead (even digging his grave for him.) But Glass survived. He re-set his leg by himself. He lay his bare back on a rotting tree stump so maggots could swarm over his wounds.
I can’t even …
He crawled on his belly through the ice and over mountains and across frozen lakes. Native Americans took pity on him and helped him for some parts of the way. There are all kinds of crazy stories about this journey, and Glass may have exaggerated it in the telling, but honestly: a man crawls 200 miles with a broken leg and a torn-up back … let him exaggerate, it’s already almost too fantastical to be believed.
Hugh Glass became a kind of rough-and-ready folk hero, his story told and re-told, almost like the song “Stagger Lee,” where the origins may be lost in the mists of time but the song has something to say about who we are, where we’ve come from, where, even, we might be going.
Survivalist stories hold an awful kind of fascination. It’s due to empathy, but not the sentimental “Oh my God, that poor person” kind of empathy. It’s empathy more like horror, mixed with terrified identification as well as pressing personal questions: “Could I survive that? What would I do? How would I fare?” William Wellman’s Islands in the Sky, starring John Wayne, was about a group of men stranded in the Arctic circle, with pilots circling around a 1000-mile area, trying to find them, needles in an icy haystack. In Islands in the Sky, Wayne played the natural leader of the group, but look for the moment when he hears the sound of a distant plane and runs towards the camera. The men wave and shout with exhilaration, sure that the plane will see them, but it’s too far away. Wayne runs right into his closeup, and the look of disappointment on his face … disappointment is too mild a word. It’s despair.
These stories (Islands in the Sky, or All is Lost, Gravity, The Martian – those last three more like The Revenant since those characters are by themselves in the crisis) appeal to me because it is impossible to remove myself from personal questions “Would I be up to this? Would I curl up in the snow and go to sleep? Or would I try to fix the generator using toothpicks and tweezers?” What these questions really express, though, is: Do I have it in me? Very few of us are tested in this very specific way. If my ankle was broken and I was on a mountaintop, would I know how to go about setting it myself? What if I actually COULDN’T make fire by smashing two rocks together? Unlike other films, where there are ordinary distractions (a home, meals to eat, cars to drive, relationships to nurture or destroy, a PLOT to fulfill), the survivalist stories strip all that away. In high school English class you learn that there are not 1,000,000 plots in the world, there are only a couple: Man Against Nature, Man Against Man, and etc. (Women, you’re included, and don’t let anyone tell you different.) In Man Against Nature, nature always has the upper hand, because nature is amoral, stronger, and doesn’t care about you at all. Just when you think you’re safe, here comes an avalanche! When Man is against Nature, he is also against Himself.
Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the best actors working today, gives a nearly wordless performance, because who can speak when
1. One is alone in icy eternity
2. One is so injured, and ones’ throat is punctured, that all one can do is huff/puff with agony?
The huff/puff lasts for almost the entirety of the film. He gasps, he heaves, he collapses, he gains a foothold, he is always thinking, even in the deepest throes of pain. The life force is not just strong, it is a COMMAND from the body. Live. Live. Live. Those who actually manage to survive such things, who have the problem-solving mindset even in the midst of despair, are rare breeds. Most people eventually “let go.” But there are the rare ones who don’t.
Instead of other fictional stories, what came into my mind repeatedly while watching The Revenant was Joe Simpson in Touching the Void (his book, as well as the documentary based on his book). Joe Simpson’s story is one of the most harrowing real-life survivalist stories I’ve ever heard. Granted, the two guys in Touching the Void had no business climbing that mountain in the way that they did, without enough supplies (a fatal error), and without a clear idea of the way down. But Joe Simpson’s journey back to base camp is the story of one disaster after another, and the story of a man who kept going, even when he was so dehydrated he started hallucinating. Never once did he lose his determination to make it back to base camp (the terrible thought that those at base camp would have given him up for dead and already packed up and gone home, was a terrible one, and he REFUSED to entertain it during his journey, an act of almost supernatural willpower).
The most striking thing about Simpson’s story, the most important choice he made, was when he was stuck in the gigantic ice crevasse after falling off the mountain: his leg was broken. He could not climb up to the hole in the top of the crevasse. It was two stories away. He looked down into the crack yawning out below him and saw nothing but blackness. He spent a night there in that crevasse, a night that got increasingly spooky: he experienced the crevasse as a sentient being, a being that wanted to get him. Despite that, he made the choice to climb DOWN … deeper into the crevasse on the off-chance that it would open up somewhere on the other side. He had no idea if it would. It was a gamble. His choice was clear, though: die in the crevasse, or die trying to get OUT of the crevasse by going deeper into it. So, you know. Joe Simpson is not a normal human being. He has much to teach all of us about endurance and mental strength.
Jon Krakauer, in Into Thin Air, recounts that as he was struggling through a blizzard on the top of Mount Everest, with people dying all around him, he found himself thinking that nobody in their right mind would regard his death (if it came) as a tragedy. Because human beings aren’t supposed to be on the top of Mount Everest and nature reminds you of that with every agonizing second. You have to wear an oxygen tank up there, which should tell you, right off the bat: “Hey, you. You humans. You’re not supposed to be up here.” But as long as Man is what he is, he will want to climb to the top of Everest, or go out into outer space, or dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and etc. That impulse is why human beings are great. That’s how progress is made.
Leonardo DiCaprio, out there in that icy landscape (again: “How did they do this? How did everyone not freeze to death? Is that REAL ice he’s rolling around in? How cold is that river he’s walking through?” and etc.), portrays a man who is one of those rare breeds. Maybe such types have a higher threshold for pain. Maybe such types are immune to self-pity (self-pity, more than anything else, is what sinks a lot of people in these desperate situations). There are people whose efficiency RISES the higher the stress. These are the bizarre ones. These are the firefighters of the world. Or the closing pitchers on a major league baseball team. Stress makes most human beings choke: the throat dries up, vision narrows to a pinpoint, the body gets stiff and frozen. This is the automatic primal “fight or flight” response. But someone like Hugh Glass (and DiCaprio in the sheer dogged brute-strength of his performance), just does not have as much of the “flight” response as he does the “fight”. Maybe because he’s used to living by his wits in the wilderness. He’s not a helpless babe out there, he understands the mountains, he can hunt, start fire, build things, he’s used to being freezing. But still, but still: Many would have given up. He didn’t. Why is not important.
It’s a long movie. It’s extremely violent, not just in some of the sequences (the opening battle with the Pawnee tribe), or in the bear attack, but in every single sequence, because Hugh Glass is so seriously injured. You can’t believe he is still alive after witnessing the bear attack (more like THREE bear attacks, because Mama Bear keeps coming back. She is PISSED.) The bear attack was bad, but watching Glass tolerate/gut-through pain for the next two hours is almost worse. At times, the pain is so bad his eyes actually seem to glaze over. (Like I said, DiCaprio is one of our greatest actors). Spit collects in his beard, saliva coats his lips. Every breath is heaving operatic agony.
How much of this is acting (as it is commonly understood), and how much of this is acting dependent on the real-life brutal conditions of the shoot itself, is irrelevant. Acting is acting and actors have to deal with the reality around them. This is one of DiCaprio’s gifts, by the way, sometimes missed in the age-old “He just plays himself” nonsense that is occasionally thrown his way. (Being “versatile” is not the ONLY measure of talent, silly people. Being “versatile” can ALSO mean you are facile and shallow. It’s a failure of criticism to not recognize this.) To say that the guy in “Wolf of Wall Street” is the same as the guy in “The Departed” or “Revolutionary Road” (I thought he was better than Winslet, though she got all the accolades), or “Gatsby” (a masterpiece performance) or “Titanic” or on and on … is not correct. It’s actually NOT a matter of interpretation. DiCaprio is in this career for the long haul, and he has put himself in projects where he will be challenged. (Even Titanic was a challenge. Coming out of the indie scene as he did, he tried to give his character in Titanic some darkness, some twistiness. Dark twistiness is more interesting to young actors than being a sunshiny optimist. James Cameron felt DiCaprio’s natural impulse to add some “darkness” to the part and adjusted him away from it, telling Leo: No, Jack doesn’t need a dark backstory. All Jack needed to do, was “lift her up.” In every moment, in every scene, DiCaprio’s only job was to “lift her up.” The fact that Leo made that adjustment so totally, an adjustment that went against his own instincts, AND that he did it in such a powerful way that the film became a worldwide phenomenon making him an A-List Superstar … is ALSO testament to his gift. Look at how he was able to adjust when necessary. It is much much harder to play a happy-go-lucky ray-of-sunshine than to skulk about being twisty and corrupt. Try it sometime. You’ll see.)
DiCaprio approaches his work intelligently. He is extremely suggestive (in the best sense possible: he is open to the material’s suggestions.) He can be extremely grave, he can be kinetic, he can be tormented (I didn’t like Inception, but his reaction when he watched his wife jump out the window is some of the best work he’s ever done), he can be boyish, he can be obnoxious, he can be so charming you want to put a frog in his bed, ANYTHING to wipe that smirk off of his face. It’s all dependent on the material and the context. In Revenant, he is a roaring grunting rough monster-of-the-wilderness, struggling to get from moment to moment to moment.
It’s not a done deal that every human being would be able to get even 15 miles with his injuries. Most people would lie down by the fire, go to sleep, and die. There’s a reason Hugh Glass’ story became so famous so immediately: because we know – and the audience back then knew – that a story like his brings us up against ourselves, it shows us what endurance REALLY looks like, and – for the moral of the story – also shows us that while things may be bad or unpleasant for us, they are nowhere near as unpleasant as being chewed up by a grizzly bear and then left for dead by your pals in the middle of the wilderness. There’s a “count your blessings” thing that happens with these stories too.
Iñárritu puts some flourishes on this already gripping tale and some of the flourishes work. The score by Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai, and Ryuichi Sakamoto is haunting, portentous, and omnipresent. The stunning cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot “Birdman,” shot Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” and “Tree of Life” – if those repetitive Malick-esque staring-up-at-the-treetops shots look familiar, that’s probably why. Some of the flourishes don’t work, and feel a little bit too fancy. The flashbacks of the smiling wife are sentimental as well as abstract – maybe that’s the point? But it didn’t add much to the story for me. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (and other films, but that one came to mind) shows the eerie grandeur of nature, how it is both full and empty at the same time. Nature is sentient in The Stalker, and nature is not benign. God is present, but God doesn’t care. At times in The Revenant, with the silence interrupted by a drip drip from the ice melting off the trees, the sense of threat impending from all sides, Iñárritu seems to be headed into Tarkovsky territory (or trying). There are some shots that are so beautiful that they linger in the mind long afterwards. Then there’s all the “To the Wonder”-ish whispering voices whispering things that are supposed to sound deep but I forgot the words a second later. Something about trees being strong even when winds come. This is news? These elements represent a strain for profundity, and straining to be profound is embarrassing because that’s what 18-year-old undergraduates do in their short stories, poems, and short films, and hopefully they grow out of it. (Incidentally, that sense of straining for profundity was one of the many many things that bugged me about Birdman.)
That being said, there is one startling image having to do with the idealized memory-wife: DiCaprio lies in the middle of a golden field of grass, and we see him in closeup looking up at what we presume is the sky. Suddenly, there’s a cut, and we see him in long shot, and hovering over him, horizontally in the air, is his wife, her long brown hair flowing down towards him. It’s great, it’s scary.
So the fancy flourishes don’t necessarily add anything, because nothing needs to be ADDED to the story to make it profound. A man crawled on his belly across 200 miles of ice. And survived. That’s already profound.
To complicate this further, The Revenant, in some of those fancy flourishes, does manage to portray the existential “We are all alone” feeling inherent in such stories. Of course if you’re alone in a wilderness, and chewed up by a grizzly, you will hallucinate of better times and safety and your smiling wife. Of course you will wonder if God is watching. You will probably hear voices, too. The wilderness is palpable in The Revenant, you can see its breath in the air. It’s alive, and it’s chomping at the bit, WANTING to get this man.
The Revenant is too long: it gives you more of a chance to perceive the strain towards profundity. The final section, once he reaches the fort (no spoilers there: it’s based on a true story), dissipates the tension. The tension dissipating is a palpable relief, but when two men head back out into the wilderness yet again … the film collapses into exhaustion. It’s worn itself out.
Still. It’s a very visceral experience, not just because of DiCaprio’s performance, but also because of that ongoing mindset of “Wait … how did they do this? Wait … where is the camera now? Isn’t everyone freezing? How did they do this?”
Those insistent questions (and they can’t help but come!) don’t really pull you OUT of the movie, although they do accompany the entire action on a parallel track.
It’s my main memory of the film, that dual awareness.