"Revenge is in the creator's hands," real life frontiersman Hugh Glass is told midway through Mexican boundary pusher Alejandro G. Iñárritu's extraordinary wilderness drama.
It is this feeling of vengeance that boils inside Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) throughout much of this two and a half hour epic – and little wonder. Mauled by a bear, left for dead by his own men and witness to the murder of his son, Glass' bleak and bloody survival in this harsh 1820s terrain is motivated by one reason alone – to even the score.
That bare outline doesn't even begin to capture the sheer wild ambition, beauty and savagery on show in The Revenant. Far more challenging than even Iñárritu's Academy Award® winner Birdman (2014), this is his Apocalypse Now (1979) or Fitzcarraldo (1982) – man versus the elements, both on screen and off. Reports of arduous nine-month shoot endured by cast and crew in the Canadian wilderness have become cinematic legend, but whatever hardships they went through, it was certainly worth it.
In the first five minutes, Iñárritu and his Birdman cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki will leave you agog with a scene of arrow whizzing, tomahawk wielding carnage as Glass and his fellow fur trappers, led by the resourceful Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), are set upon by a gang of Native Americans.
But as the group of over 40 men are whittled down to just 10, Lubezki's camerawork ensures you are just as captivated by incidental details as you are by the mesmerising action itself – the sun glinting through trees, birds circling, plumes of smoke rising.
By the 25-minute mark, you will be literally slack jawed for one of the most astonishing scenes ever committed to film, as Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear protecting its two young. Utilising the incredible effects work of Industrial Light & Magic we watch as Glass is tossed around, clawed, bitten and even sat on, the bear's paw squashing his head into the dirt. Like so much of this remarkably visceral film, you will live every moment with him – every scream and anguished howl.
While Henry is able to sew up Glass' wounds, it becomes clear that the group won't be able to carry him to safety through the harsh, mountainous landscape. "The proper thing to do would be to finish him off quick," says Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), interested only in self-preservation. Volunteering to stay with Glass, Fitzgerald is joined by youngster Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass' half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who refuses to leave his father's side.
Soon enough, Fitzgerald is leading the escape back to civilisation, leaving Glass to die. This, of course, he refuses to do, hauling himself out of a shallow grave and flaunting survival skills that would put Bear Grylls to shame.
Co-written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith (The Hole), the story is adapted from Michael Punke's 2002 novel – itself inspired by the myth that built up around Glass after his grizzly attack. If the film has a documentary feel to it, Iñárritu seasons it with frequent digressions, flashbacks, hallucinations and dreams, as Glass drifts in and out of consciousness, conjuring images of his son and wife (who at one point appears floating above him like a ghost).
Glass isn't the only man left on the mountain, though – in a parallel story, a Native American is leading his tribe in search for his missing daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk'o). French speaking fur trappers, rivals to the Captain Henry led gang, are also in the mix. But to say more about their involvement would give away elements of the final blood-soaked act – which will leave you feeling especially battered and bruised.
If you are imagining The Revenant to be a film brimming with gratuitous violence, though, nothing could be further from the truth. True, some moments are positively stomach churning – not least Glass cutting out the innards of a dead horse and using it as a makeshift sleeping bag.
But Iñárritu, pacing the film to perfection, never forgets that even in the most extreme circumstances there can be levity – Glass and a Pawnee Indian, for example, catching snow on their tongues.
With Lubezki's photography at once capturing the magnificence and cruelty of Mother Nature, like the moment Glass stands by to watch a bison stampede, you will be left in a state of shock and awe.
DiCaprio's raw performance too helps elevate what could have been just another man versus nature drama into a powerful ode to resilience. Throwing himself into every harsh scenario as if atoning for all the debauchery of Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), DiCaprio is hypnotically good. He has maybe a dozen lines of dialogue, most of which are rasped through a torn throat, but you root for him with all your heart. But this is clearly Iñárritu's show.
Defying conventional wisdom by shooting with natural light only, and in chronological order, Iñárritu has turned a creaky bit of frontier mythology into a gruelling, exquisite, mystical odyssey of survival the likes of which we have never seen before.
With a director, cinematographer and cast at the top of their game, The Revenant is nothing short of astounding.