If you follow entertainment news at all you know one thing for sure about The Revenant: it was very hard to make. It was apparently a major torture session and Leonardo DiCaprio ate a bison liver for real. It was also super duper cold out there. Talking to Yahoo, Leonardo DiCaprio said:
“I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.”
He says that shooting the bear attack scene was 'agonizing.' One crewmember told the Hollywood Reporter that shooting the movie was 'a living hell.' Every day I look at the internet and I see similar stories about how much Leo suffered for this role, about how hard it was to make the film, about the difficult locations and bitter cold and the maniacal vision of director Alejandro González Iñárritu that took the movie over budget and over schedule. And every day I look at these articles and tweets and I think to myself, 'Who gives a shit?'
Honestly, who gives a shit? This is all very interesting from a trivia point of view, and I would love to see a documentary about the making of this movie (apparently Iñárritu's desire to shoot with purely natural light meant that some days they could only shoot for 90 minutes, which is a totally fucking insane way to make a movie) but the constant harping on how hard it was to make The Revenant has really overshadowed the movie that is The Revenant. Is there even a movie here, or is the film just the byproduct of a particularly masochistic film crew spending some time in the woods?
Movies have always been hard to make. Directors have always gone out to weird places to shoot and have gone over budget and been crazily extreme in their attempts to get their vision on film. Cecil B DeMille built a whole city in the desert to shoot The Ten Commandments way back in 1923, and conditions there were not great. Over the years many filmmakers have gone out to difficult and desolate places to make their films, and while these tales of hardship are fascinating they don't overshadow the movies themselves. Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now were insane, dangerous movies to make ("My movie isn't about Vietnam," Francis Ford Coppola said. "It is Vietnam.") but the films themselves stand apart from the bonkers behind-the-scenes tales. Yes, I love watching The Burden of Dreams and Hearts of Darkness, but they're complementary to the films, not the main reason for the films.
Hollywood has always wanted you to know that they've gone to a great effort to make the latest blockbuster. These days we tend to hear about huge FX budgets and difficult schedules pinned to release dates, but way back when it was all about casts of thousands and dangerous stunts. Tom Cruise still dines out on that one, making a really big deal about how he's actually hanging from a plane or the Burj Khalifa or Wiz Khalifa or whatever they come up with for Mission: Impossible 6. "We worked really hard to put on this show," is what we're being told whenever PR trots this stuff out. And that's certainly part of why we're hearing over and over and over again that The Revenant was tough to make. But there are other reasons.
The emphasis on how hard The Revenant was to make is partially about a departure from the digital. It's the same reason The Hateful Eight's 70mm run is such a discussion point - it's about tactile reality returning to our movie screens. The promise of The Revenant is that the crew went there and did those things, and that Leo is having those experiences. It's intended as a shortcut to truth - "He actually was in the freezing water so you're truly seeing what a guy who grew up in the bubble of Hollywood looks like when he gets very, very cold!" - and it's intended as a counter to all of the CGI fakery that infects our theaters this days... although the whole movie is color graded and post-production fiddled with to within an inch of its life, so any idea that this movie is somehow more analog than Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a farce. And as anyone who has ever watched a profound movie shot on a soundstage, really doing the things doesn't make their depiction any more truthful. I will always support films that shoot real things, but let's not get that confused with emotional honesty, which is the true mission of all cinema.
The difficulty narrative is also part of Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar campaign. Going the martyr route is a good choice when it comes to end-of-the-year awards, as actors who gain or lose weight or ugly themselves up or walk in a limp get taken way more seriously than actors who come in, do great and emotionally truthful work and then go home for the night. But I'm not interested in Leo's Oscar chances. I don't care about them. I care about the movie The Revenant, and what it's about, and how, if at all, the arduous process of making this movie informed the film, how it in any way impacts me as an audience member.
The reality is that it doesn't. If anything it kind of sinks the movie for me; when you watch Apocalypse Now the absolute swirling madness of that production is there onscreen, in the performances, in the atmosphere. But it's a movie about madness, so it all works. When you watch The Revenant you're very aware that you're watching a stunt show, that you're watching a high-profile, highly-paid actor putting himself through some dares. When DiCaprio eats a raw bison liver he vomits, which the actor says was his true reaction to biting into the actual steaming organ. But here's the thing: would that have been mountain man Hugh Glass' reaction? Watching The Revenant is like watching Leonardo DiCaprio's Very Bad Vacation, not like watching the survival saga of a man born to the wild. There is certainly physical reality onscreen but I'm not sure there's emotional truth. Weirdly enough Tom Cruise's high profile M:I stunts feel like they have more truth to them if only because the character of Ethan Hunt is just Tom Cruise with a nom du spy, as far as we can tell. It's bizarre, but Cruise hanging off a plane in Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation has more honesty and meaning to it than every single discomfort suffered by DiCaprio in The Revenant.
I keep thinking about our great dueling Jesus pictures, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of The Christ. Both look to the suffering of Jesus for meaning, but the two films approach that suffering from totally different ways. For Scorsese the suffering of Christ wasn't being nailed to the cross (although that did suck for him), it was being shown the life he could have if he just gave up the mantle of Messiah. The suffering of Willem DaFoe's Christ is an emotional one, and it's a suffering that makes Christ all the more human, as we can truly relate to the idea of giving up our dreams for something bigger or more important. We've all known what it's like to put duty before happiness. In The Passion of the Christ Jim Caviezel's Christly suffering is almost purely physical; while I can get that on a gut level (just as I can recoil at all slasher and splatter pictures) I can't truly relate to being relentlessly flogged. Emotional torture I get. Physical torture is distant.
The Revenant is The Passion of the Christ of wilderness survival movies. Yeah, it all looks cold and tough and man Leo really puked but I want the emotional truth. And there is emotional truth on display in The Revenant, it just isn't in Leo's performance. It's in the performance of Will Poulter, playing a kid who is forced to do the wrong thing and who suffers the tortures not of cold and discomfort but of guilt. There's more emotional agony in any of Poulter's scenes that in anything DiCaprio does while dunked, beaten or vomiting. It's too bad that Poulter is being ignored while everybody is spending so much time talking about how Leonardo DiCaprio couldn't even find a single gluten-free option way out there in the woods.