(Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox)


Following his three-trophy Oscar haul for "Birdman" last year, filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu returns with an even more expansive cinematic challenge.  Inspired by a wild true story, "The Revenant" is an unrelenting survival drama that makes "Cast Away" look like a cute day at the beach.  Powered by raw natural beauty and a constant nerve of savage peril, Inarritu's film succeeds with striking artistry and superior craftsmanship in polishing a harsh and rough-hewn legend.  Four-time Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio pushes himself and you over edge after edge in the most challenging performance of his career.

In the 1823 South Dakota frontier along the Missouri River, mountain man Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his half-Pawnee son Hawk (newcomer Forrest Goodluck) are employed as trail guides by a company of fur trappers led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).  In a murderous opening sequence, their camp is ambushed by an Arikara war party.  Less than a dozen of the 40+ men survive to escape back to their river boat.  Glass and Hawk are joined by Henry, the ruffian John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and the inexperienced kid Jim Bridger (Will Poulter of "The Maze Runner").

Knowing the "Ri" Native Americans will not stop their hunt and that the river isolates them, Glass suggests to Henry that they ditch the boat, stash the valuable furs, and make the 200-mile-plus journey back to safety of their fort over land.  Fitzgerald is adamantly against that plan and is unwilling to give up the financial bounty of their troupe's haul.  Henry overrules Fitzgerald the remaining band begin to follow Glass and Hawk through the winding forest terrain.

Scouting ahead solo one morning, Hugh crosses paths with a pair of grizzly bear cubs and encounters a provoked adult grizzly bear defending its young.  Physically over-matched, Glass is mauled by the bear in a harrowing and excruciating scene.  Henry stabilizes his wounds, but Fitzgerald suggests they put him out his misery.  He contends Glass won't survive and will become a burden to staying ahead of their hunters.  Henry calls for extra pay to any man who will stay behind and nurse Glass back to health.  The money persuades Fitzgerald and Bridger to stay behind with Hawk and his father.

Low and behold, we see Fitzgerald only stays to save his own skin for pay.  When Hawk tries to stop Fitzgerald from suffocating Glass away from the eyes of Bridger, Fitzgerald stabs and kills him right in front of his infuriated protective father who can only watch in horror.  Fitzgerald tells Bridger that Glass is dead and that Hawk ran away.  The two leave Glass for dead half-buried in the ground.  Miraculously, Glass continues to survive.  He slowly regains enough health to trek after Fitzgerald with revenge solely on his mind, but must contend with a plethora of obstacles both in front of him and behind him.

Leonardo DiCaprio puts himself through proverbial wringer if that wringer was made of claws, teeth, blades, thorns, ice, and punishing weather.  Without question, "The Revenant" is his most physically demanding film to date.  Delivering scant dialogue, Glass is the polar opposite to his showy performance in "The Wolf of Wall Street."  This is more than an attractive movie idol going unkempt and un-pretty thanks to great makeup and wardrobe work (though that is still present).  DiCaprio is out there himself scratching, clawing, crawling, beating, bleeding, and freezing his way through this monstrous journey.  He puts Tom Hanks, James Franco, and Matt Damon to shame compared to their quintessential survival roles.  Impressively, he still manages to paint a sympathetic portrait of a father and widower, two types of character traits we've never seen from DiCaprio.

With quadruple the dialogue and character development compared to "Mad Max: Fury Road," Tom Hardy is right there with his former "Inception" co-star in getting down and dirty in the unforgiving and evil muck and mire.  His ranting and waxing fuels this movie's hardscrabble tone and rage pitted against DiCaprio's steely resolve.  Domnhall Gleeson gets a few good jabs of honor and dignity in to lighten the bleakness, but we know a showdown is coming and the anticipation is scintillating.

"The Revenant" is based on the 2002 novel of the same name written by Michael Punke and puts prose to the odyssey of Hugh Glass that has been recounted across nearly two centuries.  The real tale is nothing short of unbelievable and Inarritu's film gives it a wide landscape and epic treatment.  Inarritu and co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith press a harrowing ordeal of folklore through the mold of a revenge western thriller.  This film plunges its serrated edge of grit, snow, blood, and dirt into your chest for 156 arm-rest-clenching minutes.  Veteran Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, aided by guitarist Bryce Dessner and electronica artist Alva Noto, haunts those minutes with a slight, but eerily effective musical score.  

Nothing about this movie is warm and cuddly except the sleek moviemaking dexterity on display.  Inarritu re-teams with two of his key artistic collaborators from "Birdman" in editor Stephen Mirrione and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, both Oscar-winning masters in their fields.  Lubezki's camera methodically captures every beam and grain of the gorgeous natural Albertan Canadian country being cut by flying arrows, fogged breath, dashes of blood, teaming animals, and licks of fire.  Coupled with Mirrione's ardent pacing of the rustic frenzy, everything about the palette and delivery of "The Revenant" underlines its enduring and violent menace.

LESSON #1: WATCH THIS MOVIE AND THEN NEVER AGAIN COMPLAIN OUTWARDLY ABOUT A MINOR CUT, SCRAPE, OR BOO-BOO-- Before you moan and call upon a whiny "I can't even" when you get a papercut or charley horse, watch this guy get ripped to shreds by a bear, heal on his own without formal medical treatment, and essentially crawl 200 miles just to kill the man that put him there and took his rifle.  Toughen up, you wimp, and walk your "owie" off. 

LESSON #2: THE DEFINITION OF "REVENANT"-- Merriam-Webster defines "revenant" as "one who returns after death or a long absence."  Boy, oh boy, how right that title is here.  Watching Hugh survive the bear attack, his wounds, possible capture, and the unremitting elements to push on is exhausting and spellbinding to watch.

LESSON #3: AS LONG AS YOU CAN BREATHE, YOU CAN FIGHT-- This final lesson is the cardinal fatherly advice and mantra Hugh repeats to his son.  If you're breathing, you're alive.  If you're alive, you can fight to stay that way.  You don't quit even if your body quits.  The mettle of Hugh Glass on display is something else.