"The Revenant" is built to impress, and in most respects, it gets that job done. This tale of wilderness survival "inspired by true events" 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, Montana and Argentina, more than doubling the budget for this runaway production shot by "Best Cinematographer" Emmanuel Lubezki (back-to-back Oscars for "Birdman" and "Gravity"). And as you've probably heard, current "Best Actor" frontrunner DiCaprio braved freezing temperatures and ate raw fish and raw bison liver.
But does it work as a film? Nominally so. Take away the trappings of this fur-trapper adventure and there's not much there, other than an astonishing landscape.
The lingering impression of "The Revenant" is its own impressiveness, particularly of camerawork and physical dedication to capturing the story and its epic setting. But the rest of the film 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 such as Jack Fisk's awesome, authentic production design justify an audience sharing in that suffering for 2 1/2 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). Glass gets left for dead. So does DiCaprio, whose committed performance proves as unmoving as it is faultless. (Hardy, serving as a lightning rod for hatred, gets more of a rise out of us.)
But Glass survives and journeys across harsh terrain to exact his revenge on Fitzgerald.
While there is a dutifully spiritual component played out in family-themed flashbacks and Glass' Jack London-y communion with nature (albeit under duress), 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.
Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity. Two hours, 36 minutes.