At its most basic level, “The Revenant” is a revenge melodrama with Leonardo DiCaprio playing a man who endures unimaginable hardships to get even.
But the latest from writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman,” “Babel”) is much more than that.
This inspired-by-fact epic is one of the most richly sensory films ever made, an evocation of the American wilderness that is both beautiful and terrifying. In this world of heightened awareness every rock and limb seems etched by the hand of a master and the forests are alive with the creaking of timber. (Who knew aspens were so damn noisy?)
The primitive world evoked here is so sumptuous and scary that it threatens to overwhelm “The Revenant’s” dramatic elements.
The screenplay (by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith) is inspired by the true story of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a member of a fur trapping expedition who in 1823 was mauled by a bear. Expected to die of his injuries, Glass was left in the care of two companions instructed to give him a decent burial.
Except Glass wouldn’t die. His watchers, terrified of an Indian attack, abandoned him and rejoined their companions. But Glass clawed his way out of a shallow grave and with superhuman determination traveled 200 miles — first on his stomach, then on foot — to exact revenge.
(This story was filmed in 1971 as “Man in the Wilderness” with Richard Harris in the lead.)
On its most successful narrative level “The Revenant” is a survival story. Lacking food and weapons, DiCaprio’s Glass must scavenge for sustenance, sucking the marrow from the bones of a long-dead elk and scarfing raw fish and buffalo innards. He cauterizes his wounds by sprinkling gunpowder over the savaged flesh and igniting it with a burning stick.
It isn’t so much that Glass wants to live as he is determined to punish Fitzgerald (a grunting Tom Hardy), the venal fellow trapper who left him for dead.
But the film clutters that simple story with lots of tangential subplots and themes that feel more confusing than revelatory. For example, an Arikara war party looking for their chieftain’s abducted daughter and a rival expedition of Frenchmen whose depredations set the plot in motion threaten to throw the film off track.
There are forays into frontier racism — Glass has an adolescent son (Forrest Goodluck) by a Pawnee woman — and Native American dream mysticism. And the narrative is punctuated with flashbacks to Glass’s once-peaceful life in an Indian village.
DiCaprio (who was named best actor by the Kansas City Film Critics Circle) gives the most physical performance of his career. For vast stretches Glass says nothing — he’s a moaning wraith stumbling across a daunting landscape — and the actor must build his character through gesture and gaze. (How much of this is acting is hard to say…”The Revenant” was filmed during a brutal Canadian winter, and much of discomfort expressed by DiCaprio was undoubtedly the real thing.)
Hardy is singularly hateful as the mercenary Fitzgerald. There are solid supporting performances by Domnhall Gleeson as the expedition’s young commander and by Will Poulter as a young Jim Bridger (the real-life frontiersman who would own an outfitting store in Kansas City’s Westport neighborhood).
But this really isn’t a movie about acting.
A couple of the film’s action set pieces are instant classics. An Indian raid on the trappers’ camp is presented in just a handful of long, spectacularly complicated single takes (as with “Birdman,” it’s just about impossible to detect the CG seams that hold it all together). Glass’s encounter with an angry mother bear is horrifying, with the massive animal shaking its human victim like a boneless rag doll. And the final Glass/Fitzgerald showdown is a savage riot of blood and thudding bodies.
An unsung hero of the production is Emmanuiel Lubezki, whose cinematography embraces both the vast beauty of the Rocky Mountain region (there’s a reverence for plants and animals that reminds of Terrence Malick) and the appalling details of Glass’s ravaged body.
“The Revenant” puts way more on its plate than it can successfully digest, but at the end of nearly three hours audiences will leave feeling that they, too, have been on a great and terrible adventure.