"The Revenant" opens with the gently rustic, faintly fable-like image of a river running directly through a forest of bare trees and underbrush. The peace of this moment doesn't last and, in fact, will not return for the two-and-a-half-hour remainder of "The Revenant," a virtuoso display of pure, awe-inspiring cinema from writer-director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (2014's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
") and co-writer Mark L. Smith (2007's "Vacancy
"). Inspired by true events and based in part on Michael Punke's 2002 book "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge," this untamed epic of harrowing sights, haunting sounds and breathlessly taut storytelling revises the heretofore thought-possible boundaries of the western genre in a fashion similar but transcendent still to what Terrence Malick achieved with 2005's "The New World." Magnificently shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (2013's "Gravity
") under challenging, sometimes bitterly cold conditions in Canada and Argentina using all natural lighting and undetectable visual effects assistance, the film holds a dauntless, unparalleled authenticity.
The unforgiving winter months of 1823-'24 fast approach as the dedicated men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. make their way across scabrous terrain over 65 years before the territories which make up North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska were admitted as states. Losing 33 of their own to a sudden unannounced siege by the native Arikara warriors, the surviving fur trappers, led by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and experienced frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), salvage what collected pelts they can and escape deeper into the wilderness. There is already hostility amongst the team, most notably in regard to mercenary wild-card John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and his animosity toward Hugh's half-Pawnee teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), when Hugh is savagely mauled by a grizzly bear. John, Hawk and the young, noble-hearted Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) agree to stay behind to give Hugh a proper burial once he succumbs to the horrific injuries which have left him unable to walk or speak, but when the ailing man witnesses his son's cruel demise at John's hand and is subsequently left for dead himself, he finds a newfound will to live. Pulling himself out of his shallow grave, an incensed, devastated Hugh makes it his mission to track John down and make him pay for his barbaric actions.
A ferocious odyssey of survival and vengeance, "The Revenant" holds the power to leave one breathless and disbelieving of what has been captured by Lubezki's roving camera. Made under harsh environs amidst grandiose landscapes and breathtaking magic hours, the film is a marvel of creative dignity, technical perseverance and Herzogian sacrifice. All the months of hard work and precision (even an avalanche seen in the background of one shot is reportedly real) prove revelatory in the payoff, a muscular masterpiece transporting its audience to a time long since passed and places never before captured with such immense reverence. The blunt, violent first-act attack by the arrow-shooting Arikara natives, depicted with creeping uneasiness in bravura extended shots, is enough on its own to make the world's best filmmakers jealous. A set-piece that follows not long after, an unblinkingly graphic man vs. nature battle pitting Hugh against a protective mama grizzly, is simultaneously breathtaking, exhausting and horrifying. If this sequence is the picture's galvanizing centerpiece, it is the needless human atrocity committed by John on Hugh's only child, Hawk, that is its crucial turning point.
Hugh's journey of the physical, mental and emotional is riveting, with Leonardo DiCaprio (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street
") actualizing his character's pain in all forms. From a man seemingly a single breath away from death to one willing to do everything necessary to heal enough to find his son's murderer, DiCaprio's wrenching, mostly silent performance is another staggering tour de force for one of Hollywood's all-time great actors. Hugh's vocal cords may have been destroyed beyond repair, but DiCaprio doesn't need to speak to convey the innumerable layers of internal conflict, bloodthirsty intent and mournful sympathy boiling within Hugh. The viewer is beside him with every challenging step he takes, the frostbitten temperatures, punishing snowfall, mountainous topography, scarce supplies and sustenance, and encroaching human threats not enough to stand between him and his pursuit for retribution.
Tom Hardy (2015's "Mad Max: Fury Road
") is spectacularly effective playing the self-seeking John Fitzgerald, Hugh's coldly calculating target who once survived an attempted scalping and is ready to do whatever possible to live through much worse. His intimidating demeanor drapes itself over Jim Bridger, a novice fur trapper who must make the tough decision to leave Hugh behind or risk perishing along with his comrade. Will Poulter (2014's "The Maze Runner
") superbly exhibits Jim's warring feelingshis fear for his own life, his regret over what he has been part of, and the pressure he is put under to lie once he and John have returned to their command post. As the fiercely loyal Capt. Andrew Henry, Domhnall Gleeson continues to impress with his range; in just the last year, each of his rolesincluding those in "Ex Machina
," "Brooklyn," "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
," and now "The Revenant"has been entirely different from the last. Also lending invaluable support, free of artifice: Navajo actor Arthur Redcloud as Hikuc, a Pawnee traveler facing a grave loss of his own who comes to Hugh's aid; newcomer Forrest Goodluck, making a lasting impression as Hugh's beloved son, Hawk; and Grace Dove as Hawk's ill-fated Pawnee mother, seen in lyrical, calm-before-the-storm flashes.
True to its provocative title, "The Revenant" tells of a tragic figure, falsely believed dead, who claws back to the land of the living. His world, existing nearly two centuries ago, is staked in historical truth, yet as foreign in 2015 as an illustration out of a forbidding, hardscrabble fairy tale. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's every painterly image is an eye-opening discovery in and of itself, made all the more awe-inspiring by the lengths taken to organically achieve them. The beauty of the setting is mesmerizing to behold, its seemingly unblemished serenity standing in restless contrast to not only Hugh's ordeal but also that of the outraged, victimized native tribes who cannot simply stand back and watch as everything is stolen from them. Grisly in content, sublimely poetic in form, the film finds ultimate catharsis in the sneaking humanity flowing through its anguished veins. Unthinkable acts of evil and defiance dotting the wooded vistas collide with moments of desperation, clarity and selflessness as the Americana known all too well by modern Westerners kisses the just-out-of-reach horizon. Precariously balancing on both sides of the fight is Hugh Glass, every pace he takes leading him toward his own manifest destiny. An extraordinary vision of rugged brutality and rarified eminence, "The Revenant" is one for the ages.