Famously difficult film shoots mark the history of Hollywood like battle scars, often serving as cautionary tales for the supposed excesses of self-indulgent filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola's reputation never recovered from stories of needless catastrophes on the set of Apocalypse Now; it took decades for the film to find its rightful place on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Greatest American Films of All Time (at No. 30). Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo — for which both protagonist and the film crew hauled a steamboat over a mountain — is widely seen as inferior to Burden of Dreams, Les Blank's documentary about Herzog's absurdly epic struggle.
Though you might not guess it from the 12 Oscar nominations it just received, director Alejandro G. Inarritu's The Revenant has already joined those films on the all time A-list for painful film shoots. (Toward the end of the film's nine months of production, The Hollywood Reporter ran a story with the headline, "How Leonardo DiCaprio's The Revenant Shoot Became 'A Living Hell.'") The crucial difference is that Inarritu knowingly created his own challenges and obstacles as part of a larger (and very successful) effort to create something new using a simple tale of survival and revenge.
The Revenant is loosely based on the legend of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), an early 19th-century American frontiersman and fur trapper. Glass survived a mauling by a grizzly bear while on an expedition along the Missouri River in the upper Midwest in deepest winter and was abandoned and left for dead by his fellow trappers. It's a story central to the mythic stature of the mountain men of that time, known for surviving extreme weather and terrain equipped only with basic supplies, their rifles and their wits. The impossibly taxing circumstances also included escalating territorial battles with Native Americans who were betrayed repeatedly by white invaders.
Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki chose to tell Glass' story by shooting The Revenant in chronological order using only natural light in the remote wilderness of Alberta, Canada (one of few places that still looks like the American frontier) under harsh winter conditions, which often meant there were only two hours of usable light per day. The director and crew paid painstaking attention to historical detail in every aspect of the production. The idea, at least in part, was to capture some of the era's hardships and put more authenticity on screen.
But authenticity takes you only so far. The Revenant's finest sequences transcend issues of realism to generate a spiritual quality more often associated with fine art. Inarritu and Lubezki build on what they learned crafting 2014's Oscar-winning Birdman, which maintains the illusion of a single two-hour camera shot. The Revenant's most dazzling scenes — and there are many — typically consist of long, seamless shots in which the perspective shifts among characters as the camera moves 360 degrees. The effect on viewers is visceral and emotional. Remarkably, these techniques serve only the needs of the story and are never employed for their own sake. Film students will study them for years to come.
The film's two lead performances are central to the film's success. As Glass, DiCaprio easily bridges The Revenant's physical and spiritual leanings. Up-and-coming British actor Tom Hardy is even more convincing as Glass' nemesis, John Fitzgerald. The Revenant's primary flaw is easy to predict: At more than two-and-a-half hours, it's just too long, offering one too many beautifully rendered scenes of human struggle against the forces of nature. But as excesses go among visionary filmmakers, that's not so hard to take. — KEN KORMAN