It's taken Alejandro González Iñárritu just five films and 15 years to become a movie-making legend. His latest epic, "The Revenant," is set to further enhance the Mexican-born director/producer's already weighty reputation.
Swiftly following Iñárritu's Academy Award-winning 2014 dark comedy "Birdman," "The Revenant," which opened in limited release on Dec. 25 and will see wide release on Jan. 8, is another emotionally raw, breathtaking fever dream of a film.
"What makes Iñárritu stand out is his ability to convey magical realism on screen," said Tom Nunan, a lecturer at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and co-executive producer of the Oscar-winning film "Crash."
"That's a combination of visual variety, the look of cinematography, lighting and the production design, which is always elevated to a point that feels connected to reality but beautiful at the same time."
Debuting with the brutally intense "Amores Perros" in 2000, the first of a film trilogy completed by 2003's "21 Grams" and 2006's Brat Pitt-starring "Babel," Iñárritu has developed a visceral and uniquely engaging cinematic signature.
While "The Revenant" may have little in common with "Birdman," trading the latter's quirky humor and vibrant New York City backdrop for a dark pursuit of vengeance in a bleak wilderness, commonalities do exist. Iñárritu once again chose "Birdman" cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to create the look of "The Revenant," and producer Arnon Milchan was also involved with both movies.
Nunan said "Birdman" personifies Iñárritu's "ambition to delve deeply and dramatically into the psyche of the lead character against a backdrop that is almost, in the past, impossible to convey authentically on camera." That description could equally apply to "The Revenant."
Iñárritu's ambitious approach is well suited to the early 19th-century survival odyssey of American frontiersman Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) upon which "The Revenant" is based. Left for dead and robbed by his companions after a backwoods bear mauling, Glass embarks upon a quest for revenge covering hundreds of wincingly harsh miles of physical, mental and emotional ordeals.
"In a way, the idea of a man coming back to life after being buried alive is one of those impossible human experiences that Iñárritu seems drawn to in a way that he himself can't control," Nunan said.
Set in what is now South Dakota and Nebraska but shot over nine months in far-flung regions of Canada and southern Argentina, "The Revenant" combines intense character study with spectacular scenery.
Iñárritu told Deadline.com: "We are shooting in such remote far-away locations that, by the time we arrive and have to return, we have already spent 40% of the day." Much time was saved, however, by shooting in natural outdoor light, thus avoiding the laborious process of setting up electrical lighting. But this was an artistic rather than logistical decision.
"When something is shot in natural light ... it's the closest thing to what we experience every day, visually, as humans, versus when we walk into a movie theater and watch something that's been highly produced, unnaturally," Nunan explained.
"So the idea that Iñárritu insisted on shooting ["The Revenant"] naturally speaks to his insistence that this be as immersive of an experience for the viewer as possible, so that they can relate to it and believe this actually happened — and this could happen to them, too."
On top of the challenging weather conditions of the obscure locations, Iñárritu insisted on shooting the film, which he has called the most ambitious project of his life, sequentially, as he has all of his movies to date. The result is a visually spectacular and emotionally profound end product.