The Revenant reinvents the epic

There are moments in The Revenant when director Alexander G. Iñárritu delivers sequences unlike anything we have seen at the movies. As he breaks the rules of how to use a camera, he creates new ways to tell a story. And, while the narrative can feel familiar at moments, how the director tells this survival tale is anything but conventional. The Revenant will leave you breathless.

This director likes to innovate. A year ago, Iñárritu won an Oscar for insisting that Birdman look as if the entire film was shot in one take. This new film is even more ambitious. While Birdman came to life inside the confines of a Broadway theater, The Revenant is shot against rugged backgrounds in the wilderness. While the earlier film explored a man’s struggle with internal demons, the new work examines how a man must overcome every possible obstacle to survive. And while the characters in Birdman talked a lot about their issues, stretches of The Revenant are dialogue free where Iñárritu lets his camera capture how people struggle to live.

While this may sound heavy, The Revenant rings true with an optimistic view that, in the end, right can win over wrong. As the film’s hero – masterfully created by Leonardo DiCaprio – must try to survive, we experience the power of his perseverance, and believe in his capacity to endure.

The story is simple. DiCaprio is a trapper in 1820s America long before the West was won and the new nation built an infrastructure to keep the peace between people. As a man committed to protect his son – after the death of the son’s mother – DiCaprio will do anything to ensure his son’s safety. But when man and beast attack, and the father risks losing everything, including his life, he fights back in ways we don’t often see at the movies.

For DiCaprio, the role offers a chance to work against a backdrop big enough for the intensity he brings to his craft. Nothing the actor has done before prepares us for what he accomplishes here. With minimal dialogue and, at moments, severe physical limitations, he conveys everything we need to know about a man who refuses to let anything define his life, family or future. The actor makes us believe that a man can navigate a brutal world. And he’s matched each step by Tom Hardy whose villain is so convincing that we cheer DiCaprio’s every effort to gain on his evil challenger.

As strong as the acting can be, though, The Revenant is a director’s triumph. With a depth of visual understanding reminiscent of Terrence McNally, and the patience for action of the late John Ford, Iñárritu makes us feel we visit primitive America for the first time. Never have such sequences – of isolated men in a brutal land – looked so spontaneous. The director uses the depth of his camera, and the range of his visual, to explore what’s inside a man who simply refuses to die.

The Revenant reminds us that, as mature as film may be as a craft, artists will continue to push its boundaries. Though Iñárritu creates visuals that astound, his journey inside this hero gives the film its heart. While the film’s advertisements promote the louder moments in the movie, at its core this is a highly personal story of survival from a director who knows how to thrive, one magical movie at a time.

The Revenant

  • Content: High. The classic story of man vs. environment is a Hollywood standard that can always entertain.

  • Entertainment: High. Thanks to director Alexander G. Iñárritu’s brilliant way with a camera, the movie reaches beyond its familiar story to offer something special.

  • Message: High. Because of the way Iñárritu tells the story, and the power of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as an isolated man, the film offers a strong message of perseverance.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to examine a meaningful moment in our nation’s history can prompt discussion between parents and older teenagers.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. From the characters to the special effects to the beautiful way Iñárritu tells a story, The Revenant offers you and your older teenagers a lot to talk about, not just the bear attack sequence.


(The Revenant is rated R for “strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.” The film runs 156 minutes.)

5 Popcorn Buckets

Let’s Talk Movies: The Revenant Breaks the Rules

Using a camera in ways other directors may only imagine, Alexander G. Iñárritu breaks the rules with The Revenant much as he did, a year ago, with his Oscar-winning Birdman. The man simply doesn’t believe in saying “no” to a camera.

“I did not want the film to feel like a conventional story about a man’s efforts to survive,” the director reflected in a recent question-and-answer session sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “Instead, I wanted to feel primitive, almost Biblical, in how it follows what one man will do to overcome what stands in his way.”

With its epic sweep, and depth as a character study, The Revenant soars as a meaningful exploration of the endurance of the human spirit.

“I needed to look at how this man could succeed, how he could live, how he could survive the improbable,” Iñárritu shares. “For the audience to empathize with his journey, and to follow what happens in open spaces, I had to approach the story in a cinematic way. Because the film takes place in 1823, I needed to create that time period, which is much earlier than many stories about the American wilderness. And I had to capture what a jungle that world could be. This is not a Western, as such, because it takes place before the West existed.”

To prepare his cast for the difficult shoot, Iñárritu conducted extensive rehearsals so that, by the time the cast arrived on set, they were well prepared for the shoot. And that paid off when – because of the director’s determination to only use natural light – Iñárritu had to shoot complex sequences in just one take.

“We rehearsed everything,” Iñárritu remembers, “with each shot carefully staged, every fight sequence choreographed. Nothing on the film was improvised. And, as far as the bear attack sequence, well, I can’t give away all the inside story. But we did plan that to achieve as much realism and tension as we could. I was not interested in shooting in an academic way. That’s why we only got one to three shots per day. But we did edit as we shot.”

Visually, The Revenant pushes Iñárritu and his Oscar-winning cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, beyond their landmark work on Birdman a year ago.

“The locations were a character in the film,” Iñárritu says, “and the weather and seasons were essential. That required us to travel to some 100 locations from Montana to Canada to Argentina. Every location became an obsession. Some days we would shoot in below zero weather. It was miserable for everyone but we would not have captured the same film if cast and crew had done their work in comfort. It was a case of adapt or die!”

From all the misery during the shoot emerges a classic film that will stand the passage of time. “The odyssey of making the film reflects the story,” observes Iñárritu. “I wanted it to reflect a perception of life. And that’s why I decided to leave in a few shots that some directors might have discarded, such as when a character’s breath smudges the camera lens. That is what life would look like. I was not concerned about having a clean film.”

As he did with Birdman, Iñárritu uses this film to continue an experience of personal exploration. “With Birdman I was interested in how people age. With this film, I wanted to learn what people will do to survive. And to make that real, perhaps I needed to make the shoot a survival exercise, too.”