Alejandro González Iñárritu is the nominal director of The Revenant, a historical drama set in the American wilderness of the early 19th century, but the movie doesn’t resemble any of his previous work. Prior to his Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), his films—Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), Biutiful (2010)—were unbearably dour and self-important, with gimmicky overlapping plots, filmmaking techniques cribbed from Steven Soderbergh, and a message that boiled down to “it’s a small world after all.” By contrast, the world portrayed in The Revenant is gigantic: vast landscapes, mile-high trees, and infinite horizons. But the auteur of that vision isn’t Iñárritu—it’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
Lubezki may be the most famous and celebrated cinematographer currently working. Aside from his Oscar-winning contribution to Birdman, a film edited to appear as if it were shot in a single take, Lubezki is known primarily for his collaborations with Terrence Malick (The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder) and Alfonso Cuarón. Lubezki has been director of photography on every film Cuarón has made—including Gravity (2013), a visual experience so breathtaking that critic J. Hoberman, placing the movie in the same tradition as Intolerance and 2001: A Space Odyssey, said that Cuarón had “created a sense of unlimited space where the mind knows that none actually exists.” The Revenant is just as impressive, a cinematic mirror on the disbelief human beings experience when they witness immense natural beauty.
Partly adapted from a historical novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a trapper for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company who, in 1823, was mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his party. Glass miraculously recovered and hiked more than 200 miles to meet back up with his outfit and get his revenge. Punke’s book is largely about the nuances of a historical time period, but the film emphasizes the vengeance aspect—it just happens to take place in 19th-century America. In the book, Glass is abandoned by fellow trappers Fitzgerald and Bridger, who flee with his supplies; for the movie, Iñárritu and his coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith have given Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) a half-Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who is murdered by Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). This plot device makes Glass’s thirst for revenge seem more plausible, but it also obscures one of the virtues of Punke’s work: its historical accuracy.
Because of Lubezki’s cinematography, however, the problems with the adaptation are easy to ignore. The Revenant is shot in natural light with a large-format digital camera called the Alexa 65, released earlier this year and praised by one veteran cinematographer for its power to “meet or exceed the capabilities we had with our film cameras.” As Lubezki has pointed out, digital still lacks film’s dynamic range—yet the image resolution in The Revenant is phenomenal, even when the camera is moving quickly or acrobatically. Panoramic landscape shots that normally register as interstitial feel necessary and momentous; the fog of breath on a camera lens merges with a stunning aerial shot of thick clouds enshrouding mountaintops; the eye of a horse appears in rich, high-contrast close-up.
Lubezki’s work is particularly wondrous in a scene (one of the few taken from the book) in which Glass, nearly starving to death, stumbles into a field full of buffalo. The camera follows him as he climbs the side of a cliff, and as he crawls over the edge, the perspective swoops around him onto the field, where buffalo run around each other in a great mass. Lubezki doesn’t just linger on that image, though; he turns it back around and around again, showing Glass and the buffalo and Glass again. Likewise the bear-attack scene occurs in one long take, tightly framed on the bear and Glass so that the audience feels the claustrophobia and panic of the encounter. When it’s over, Lubezki flips the camera skyward, conveying at once the enormity of nature and the serene settings in which violence often occurs. Lubezki is just as adept at capturing the geography of the human face—as Fitzgerald relates to a fellow trapper his utter lack of faith and compassion, Lubezki slowly zooms in on Hardy’s facial contortions, making the character look as oblivious and vicious as the bear.
“God is a squirrel,” Fitzgerald says during this scene. It’s the kind of line one would expect to find in a Werner Herzog film, and indeed many critics have pointed out that The Revenant owes a debt to the German director. Like Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), The Revenant is preoccupied with a man trying to overpower the natural world and, by proxy, the assumed physical limitations of his species. Herzog, however, is obsessed with the absurd dialectical struggle between nature’s cruelty and human beings’ compassion and reverie. His films have a humor and visual poetry largely absent from The Revenant, in which nature seems unfathomably enormous—a fearsome, awesome, overpowering presence.
This vision is largely attributable to Lubezki, because apart from the photography, Hardy’s performance, and Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s moving score, everything in The Revenant feels botched or horribly mismanaged (many crew members left the production, complaining of horrible conditions and treatment by Iñárritu). In the past few years Lubezki has worked on four films, Oscar nominees all, that attempt to visualize daunting, colossal, and even cosmic subjects: existence (The Tree of Life), space (Gravity), ego (Birdman), nature (The Revenant). Though they were made by three different directors, the way they address larger-than-life topics despite problematic scripts makes them feel like the output of one person. That person is Emmanuel Lubezki; with each successive film he confounds and exceeds my expectations. v