The Revenant

(2015) ** 1/2 R
156 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson.

/content/films/4865/1.jpgThe Revenant is built to impress, and in most respects, it gets that job done. “Inspired by True Events,” this tale of wilderness survival frontlines Leonardo DiCaprio as a man who must battle a grizzly bear, the elements, and his fellow man to survive and claim vengeance against the ruthless man who done him wrong. Reigning “Best Director” (since last year’s Oscar for Birdman) Alejandro G. Iñárritu threw his weight around Canada (and Montana and Argentina), more than doubling the budget for this runaway production shot by reigning “Best Cinematographer” Emmanuel Lubezki (back-to-back Oscars for Birdman and Gravity). Oh, and as you’ve probably heard, current “Best Actor” frontrunner DiCaprio braved freezing temperatures and ate raw fish and raw bison liver (he reeeeaaaallly wants that Oscar, y'all).

But does it work as a film? Nominally so, but take away the trappings of this fur-trapper adventure and there’s not much there there, other than the there of an astonishing landscape. The lingering impression of The Revenant is its own impressiveness, particularly of camerawork and physical dedication to the task of capturing the story and the epic setting on this cinematic canvas. The rest proves largely inseparable from what prognosticators predict will at last win Leo his Oscar: suffering or, to be more specific, the most suffering. There’s an audience for that, but it’s also fair to wonder if the compensations—like Jack Fisk’s awesome production design, which brings crafted authenticity to the natural-lit settings—justify an audience sharing in that suffering for two and a half hours.

DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a member of a fur-trapping expedition set upon by native Arikara in Louisiana Purchase territory, circa 1823. The chaotic battle leaves the hunting party scrambling to make it back to an outpost in one piece, a task further complicated by Glass’ unscheduled encounter with the aforementioned grizzly. With the mauled Glass on death’s door, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) leaves him in the care of a smaller party, headed up by merciless John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and including two ineffectually callow youths, Jim (Will Poulter) and Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Though it seems matters could hardly get any worse, they do, and Glass gets left for dead. So does DiCaprio, whose committed performance proves as unmoving as it is faultless (filmland’s go-to human animal Hardy, serving as a lightning rod for hatred, gets more of a rise out of us).

Most of the rest of the film comprises Glass’ journey across harsh terrain to exact his revenge on Fitzgerald and rejoin the living (the film’s title, taken by screenwriters Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu from Michael Punke’s source novel, refers to “one who has returned, as if from the dead”). Yes, there’s a dutifully spiritual component that plays out in family-themed flashbacks and Glass’ Jack London-y communion (albeit under duress) with nature. But to enjoy a picture this grueling, one arguably has to make excuses for it. There’s little to chew on here in terms of themes, and Iñárritu’s insistently flashy cinematographic staging (dazzlingly, distractingly long takes, in an “immersive” style that gets in your face by getting in the actors’ faces) ultimately plays less as lyricism and more as poetry slam. A certain breed of film geeks will snap fingers in approval, but most viewers—having been pummeled into acknowledging the film's muscular "greatness"—will feel little more than dazed and ready more for a nap than a conversation.

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