‘The Revenant’: Visceral story of survival on the frozen frontier

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If you love movies, don’t you dare wait to watch “The Revenant” on any screen you can hold in your hand.

Get up. Stretch your legs. Go to the movies. Please.

The enormously talented Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Birdman”) strikes again with this 19th century American fable, one of the most brutally beautiful movies I’ve ever seen.

Set in the wintry Great Plains of 1823 and filmed with natural light on magnificently unsullied land and waters in Canada and Argentina, “The Revenant” is a visceral sensation, filled with unforgettable visuals and memorable set pieces.

It’s violent and unforgiving. Rarely has the sight (and sound) of an arrow piercing a man’s flesh and almost instantly ending his life seemed so shockingly authentic. Few films have done such a brilliant job of capturing the harshness of the frontier life of nearly two centuries ago.

Inspired by true events, as they say, and adapted from a 2002 historical novel by Michael Punke, “The Revenant” showcases Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his most impressive performances as Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who in 1823 was hired as a scout by the Rocky Mountain Trading Co. to guide a team of fur trappers through a territory that some 60-plus years later would become part of South Dakota.

While guiding the trappers through the unforgiving wilderness, Glass keeps a close watch on his teenage son Hawk (Forest Goodluck), who is half-Pawnee. (Through haunting flashbacks, we learn how Glass’ wife was murdered.)

One morning while Glass is out hunting, a tribe of Arikara springs a surprise attack on the trappers while they’re at campside, relaxed and vulnerable. As Glass joins the fight and protects his son, the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera swoops and swirls and tracks through the horrifyingly violent battle, following one trapper and then another, one Arikara and then another, as man after man falls to his death.

Only a handful of trappers survive the attack, finding temporary escape on a boat but knowing they’ll be open prey for a second attack once the river narrows.

Glass convinces the group they have to abandon the boat and take a land route to headquarters at Fort Kiowa. The official leader of the group, young Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is smart enough to know Glass is their only hope for survival.

Which brings us to the bear.

Odds are you’ve heard about the scene in which Glass is attacked by a bear, bitten repeatedly, tossed about like a rag doll and crushed to within inches of his life. It’s all movie magic, of course, but as Glass is squashed and ripped to a pulp, his bones crushed and his skin torn apart, it’s  devastatingly realistic.

Somehow Glass survives, but his death seems imminent and inevitable. The trappers create a makeshift stretcher and they try to carry Glass as they slip and slide and slog their way through ice and snow and bitter cold — but finally Captain Henry has to admit none of them will make it if they continue to struggle with carrying Glass.

In order to ensure Glass gets a proper burial, Captain Henry leaves him behind with three men: Glass’ son Hawk, a young and inexperienced trapper named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a nasty cuss who wears a bandana over his head to cover up the grotesque scarring from a scalping he endured.

Terrible things happen. Glass winds up alone and left for dead, but when he regains consciousness there is life blazing fiercely in his eyes, and thus begins a journey filled with pain and suffering, interspersed with moments of hope and spirituality.

DiCaprio has maybe 20 percent as much dialogue as he did in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and his classic movie-star looks are buried beneath an icy beard and layers of mud and blood, but it’s a great big performance — powerful and raw and forceful. After five Academy Award nominations without a win, this could be the role that wins DiCaprio the Oscar. It would be well deserved.

I keep saying Tom Hardy is one of the best actors in the world because Tom Hardy IS one of the best actors in the world. His Fitzgerald is a tortured soul who might once have been a good man, with a conscience and a sense of right and wrong — but one look in his eyes and you know those days are long gone. He will send a chill up and down your spine even while delivering a seemingly innocuous piece of dialogue.

The closing confrontation in “The Revenant” is a bit reminiscent of the gunfight at the end of Robert Altman’s masterful “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” It’s darkly poetic and unforgettable — as is the film as a whole.

[s3r star=4/4]

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, based in part on the novel by Michael Punke. Running time: 156 minutes. Rated R (for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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