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Leonardo DiCaprio wanders the West looking for revenge in The Revenant.

Look, I get why people are losing their minds over The Revenant. It looks amazing and has much else to recommend it besides. Still, it’s a movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who hasn’t been content merely to tell a story since he did Amores Perros back in 2001. He’s always reaching for cosmic significance in his material, whether he’s telling the story of an actor trying to mount a Broadway play or a criminal go-between in Barcelona, and it just keeps eluding him. His grandiose films are all marred by the sense that he thinks he’s delivering them on stone tablets from a mountaintop. (Saying that his movies deserve to be watched in temples don’t help him, either.) His pretentiousness keeps him from reaching the lofty heights of Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo Del Toro, his compatriots and friends whose level of talent is comparable to his, and it infects The Revenant, a terrific 120-minute Western trapped in a 150-minute running time.

Real historical events inspired Michael Punke’s novel, on which this movie is partially based. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass, a guide leading a party of fur trappers through the Upper Missouri River country along with his teenage half-Pawnee son (Forrest Goodluck) in 1823. On a reconnaissance trip by himself, Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear so badly that his fellow trappers don’t expect him to live. They eventually leave him behind, with three men to care for him until he dies. One of these, a malefactor named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), tries to kill Glass, murders his son in front of him, and then buries the still-living Glass in a shallow grave before fleeing. Somehow, Glass manages to crawl out and wander 200 miles during the dead of winter to get revenge.

Cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki seems to conquer new challenges with every project now. Having conjured up outer space in Gravity and maintaining the illusion of an unbroken take in Birdman, he now photographs this epic using only natural light and ambient light sources like campfires and candle flames. Just as Lubezki did in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, he captures these landscapes in such detail that you can catch every icicle hanging from the trees. Along with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto’s score filled with big, angry chords, the landscape helps conjure a menacing backdrop for the action, where inhospitable Nature laughs at Man’s petty desire for revenge, money, and land.

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Lubezki is well complemented by the director. Iñárritu (apparently he’s going by that name now instead of his proper surname, González Iñárritu) does fantastically by the action sequences. The bear attack is the scene that is drawing all the buzz, and it is indeed terrifying to witness, with the computer-generated animal’s breath fogging up the lens as it places a heavy paw on Glass’ bleeding head. However, the director’s skill is evident in many other places, including the Arikara Indians’ attack on the fur traders that opens the movie, with his vertiginous tracking shots following the white men as they run for their boat, many of them being cut down by arrows or tomahawks as they go. The same goes for Glass’ flight from a party of murderous Sioux, which ends with him riding a horse off a cliff, and the brutal final showdown between Glass and Fitzgerald, which never took place in real life.

DiCaprio may well get an Oscar nomination or even that elusive trophy for this film, but the really vivid performance here comes from his Inception co-star. Even before the expedition takes a bad turn, Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a poisonous presence, complaining nonstop and oozing contempt for everyone else, especially Glass and the expedition’s overmatched commander (Domhnall Gleeson). Even when he finds out Glass is alive, Fitzgerald feels betrayed in a “How dare this bastard screw up my life by not dying?” sort of way. Hardy takes what could have been a cardboard villain and shows you the fear and hatred of the natives that drive this scumbag, springing from an unsuccessful long-ago scalping attempt that has left him with a grotesquely messed-up hairline.

As impressive as The Revenant undoubtedly is, its curdling self-importance makes me prefer The Hateful Eight (see: below review), which is unabashedly, if sometimes misguidedly, about entertainment. Neither Western is as good as S. Craig Zahler’s much leaner and just as skillful Bone Tomahawk from earlier this year. Remember that when The Revenant gets its Oscar nominations. It’d be better if the Academy remembered it first.

 

[box_info]The Revenant
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, based partially on Michael Punke’s novel. Rated R.[/box_info]

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