Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s prior film, Birdman (2014), was lauded by many for its innovative use of the single shot: the movie is designed to look like one continuous flow through the inner workings of show business. While initially interesting, I ultimately found this device to be irritating and distracting from the chaos transpiring around the camera.
In his next film, The Revenant (2015), Iñárritu employs many long shots as well, but in a more restrained and impactful way. This movie is not supposed to look like one endless take, but the moments that are singular shots hit much harder and enhance the narrative.
The Revenant tells the story of a party of fur trappers; one among their number, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is attacked by a bear and falls ill. His survival is a priority for nearly all of the party, except for John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who resents Glass and questions his leadership. As Glass’s apparent fate looms closer, the men leave him behind, under the care of Fitzgerald and a younger man, who kill Glass’s son Hawk and leave Glass for dead soon after. Having survived a bear attack, there’s pretty much nothing Glass can’t do, and the bulk of the film is him trudging through the wilderness to seek revenge on Fitzgerald.
This western revenge story might sound boring or cliche, but it’s anything but. The long shot is captivating in epic battle sequences, and following Glass into and out of the gravest of situations. In one memorable scene, Glass is at a river’s shore hiding from the Arikara Native Americans behind some rocks; the camera pans between Glass, the Arikara, back to Glass gliding backwards away, back to the Arikara, then to Glass plunging into the river dodging arrows.
I’m really nuts about the camera work in this film for two reasons:
- The wide takes illustrate a greater trust between the director and the audience. In James Ivory’s comments on A Room with a View, he remarks how he prefers to film wide takes as that allows viewers to take all the action in, and they can spot actions/movement transpiring – we don’t need a close-up to know what to pay attention to. This is illustrated best in the attacks between the fur party and Native Americans; we get wide shots of the forest or a river’s shore, as a flurry of activity gradually fills the screen. Iñárritu doesn’t need to zoom in to arrows flying into fur trappers or gun shots exploding – he knows we’re paying attention.
- The long shots heighten the intensity for key narrative moments. When Birdman used long shots for the entire film, they lost their momentum pretty fast; where The Revenant succeeds is how it uses them deliberately and more effectively. Each one is for a significant moment of change: Glass in the forest savagely attacked by a bear, Fitzgerald dragging Glass’s immobile body to be buried alive, Glass and Fitzgerald’s climactic battle. Each shot takes us to a vastly different place than when that shot began.
Now I almost think of Birdman as practice for The Revenant – Iñárritu’s chance to apply the technical skills he’s mastered with greater restraint and with a richer narrative. Similar to my reaction to Ex Machina, most of the excitement from this movie came from not knowing what was coming next. There are lots of survival movies, and lots of revenge movies, but The Revenant is told through a unique vision that heightens the impact and power of this oft-told tale.