After a brief prologue, The Revenant immerses us in a fierce battle that takes place in a forest bathed in eerie light. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like the way director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's camera captures an Arikara Indian attack on a white hunting party.
Instantly, Inarritu -- with an amazingly able assist from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity and The Tree of Life) -- throws us off balance. Inarritu's images are shockingly realistic, yet his movie almost feels as if it's taking place in an alien world where the natural environment alternates between beauty and cold indifference.
I've read that Inarritu (Birdman and Babel) did most of his filming at dawn or dusk, times when the light feels chilled and elusive. His decision paid off.
There's not much build-up to the movie's opening bloodbath, but that may be fitting: The Revenant isn't about pauses and reflection; it's a heart-pounding story of one man's attempt to survive the frontier in the 1830s.
In what surely was a physically grueling experience, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, the tracker who tries to plot a course that will save the small group of men who survive the movie's opening attack. These surviving hunters are being led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), a man who struggles to remain even-handed in what increasingly looks like a blood-thirsty slaughterhouse.
DiCaprio's Glass spans two worlds. He's a white man who was married to a Pawnee woman who was killed by white soldiers. He has a half-Pawnee, teen-age son (Forrest Goodluck) to whom he's entirely devoted.
If you've read anything about The Revenant, you already know that one of the movie's most shocking scenes occurs when a bear attacks Glass. Making use of convincing CGI, Inarritu presents a harrowing assault in which Glass is so severely mauled, we expect him to die on the spot.
The word "revenant" means one who has returned from the dead, and the term never has been more aptly applied than to the character DiCaprio portrays in this bloody, physical and obviously demanding performance.
As The Revenant progresses, it becomes clear that Glass again and again will be tested.
If you're looking for survival strategies, you could do worse than multiple viewings of Inarritu's adventure. The Revenant offers lessons in how to catch and eat raw fish or cauterize a severe wound.
In another of its memorably gory scenes, Glass removes the entrails from a newly dead horse so that he can crawl into the animal's carcass, using what's left of its warmth to preserve himself from the cold. His emergence from the animal after a blizzard stands as one of Glass' many symbolic rebirths.
Not only does Glass face natural obstacles; he also must deal with a human enemy. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) believes in money and survival; he tries to convince his companion, Bridger (Will Poulter), that they should put the wounded Glass -- reunited with the other hunters after the bear attack -- out of his misery. So long as Glass remains alive, he only can slow the party down. They must drag him over rough terrain on a litter made of wood.
Speaking with a frontier accent that sounds like a cross between a garbage compactor and Tommy Lee Jones, Hardy again loses himself in a role, so much so that it may take you a while even to realize he's in the movie. Nothing about The Revenant dissuaded me from thinking of Hardy as one of the best screen actors working today.
Working from a screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Inarritu that's partly based on a novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant forces Glass into one life threatening situation after another, each presented in convincing enough fashion to make the movie a stomach-tightening ordeal.
Late-picture attempts to add an ethical dimension to the movie's revenge plot (I haven't talked about it much to avoid spoilers) aren't especially convincing, and at two and a half hours, Glass probably faces one challenge too many.
But The Revenant provides Inarritu with an opportunity to present a view of the frontier as a place of nearly unrelieved brutality and looming death, all augmented by Lubezki's brilliant cinematography.
If Inarritu was trying to give his movie mythic status, I don't believe he succeeds. In some ways, The Revenant is a glorified action movie, its scenery coated with ice and snow and brimming with forest mystery. But there's no denying that The Revenant feels as if it's taking place in a frozen expanse where both Glass and an audience are effectively put through a merciless wringer.
Lament it if you will, but that's part of what we've come to regard as entertainment.