The Revenant is what 3-D and IMAX promise without either surcharge, a movie immersing viewers in its brutal beauty, making the screen seem uncommonly larger. The popular term is "pure cinema," and this, my friends, is it.
That this remarkable experience comes from director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and accomplice in vision, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, isn't surprising. Their Academy Award-winning collaboration on Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was an extraordinary illusion, seeming to be composed in a single, unbroken take that, of course, wasn't.
Nothing as boldly extensive is attempted in this 19th century frontier ordeal, although the same science of camera motion Iñárritu designed with Lubezki is applied. The Revenant effectively places viewers in the midst of horror — an Indian ambush, a grizzly bear mauling — in long, perfectly choreographed takes, the camera serving as our panicked eyes. Rarely in movies is confusion so precisely conveyed, or calmer scenes more welcome for relief.
The Revenant is inspired by the true story of frontier fur trapping guide Hugh Glass, played by a convincingly hard-nosed Leonardo DiCaprio. This is an impressively physical performance, just a few dozen lines of English dialogue but an abundance of discomfort and feigned pain. Consider DiCaprio's Golden Globe and possibly Oscar nominations as hazardous duty perks.
Glass leads a fur trapping expedition in South Dakota when The Revenant begins, with Lubezki's camera pulling us into the wilderness. Silent except for nature, and man trying to not disturb it. Glass and his half-Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) are hunting, but dread hangs heavy in the air.
A few minutes later, it explodes, with an attack by Indians searching for the kidnapped daughter of their chief. Iñárritu stages the massacre with jaw-dropping flow, the lens swiveling from one flesh desecration to the next. Think of the opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan except with arrows and muskets. Not a pretty sight but ravishing cinema.
Survivors decide to retreat to the nearest fort. Glass clashes with trapper John Fitzgerald (a terrifying Tom Hardy) over the safest escape route, their expedition leader (Domhnall Gleeson) siding with his guide. That crazed look in Fitzgerald's eyes suggests a more cold-blooded way to settle the matter.
Soon, a bear nearly handles it for him. Glass is mauled by a mother defending her cubs, in a five-minute sequence of CGI and stunt wire magic some may prefer to watch through their fingers. Don't, or you'll miss Iñárritu's single-take sleight of hand at its finest, creating uncommon tension.
Fitzgerald urges leaving Glass to die but agrees to stay until then, giving him a proper burial while the others escape. No one believes that, so Hawk and Jim Bridger (an excellent Will Poulter) hang back.
From there, The Revenant leaves a bloody trail of murder, deceit and revenge when Glass isn't as dead as anyone believes. While his ordeal and amazing survival across 200 miles of wilderness is apparently true, Iñárritu and co-adapter Mark L. Smith are bound to the American Indian embellishments of Michael Punke's novel. They aren't always the wisest narrative choices, a bit pat at the finale but Punke's way out of a fictional corner.
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The Revenant is an action blockbuster with an art house soul, a headlong rush of motion with meaning. Pure cinema from Iñárritu and Lubezki, two undisputed masters working at their peaks.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.