If Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" didn't have enough blood and snow for you, then Alejandro González Iñárritu's "The Revenant" should not disappoint. Both of these Oscar contenders take place in the wintry west and feature characters who wish to spill each other's blood, but they are complete polar opposites. Tarantino's depiction of violence is as stylized as ever, while Iñárritu's is brutally realistic and harder to stomach. The award-winning director of last year's "Birdman" returns with yet another film focused on human suffering. Like many of Tarantino's efforts, "The Revenant" is marketed as a revenge thriller, but Iñárritu puts revenge in the passenger's seat for this ride. Themes of survival take the wheel here, and they are communicated effectively thanks to some staggering cinematography and gripping performances. Everything looks beautiful, but certain elements feel somewhat Hollywood-ized, complicating the mood of what is otherwise an art-house think piece about the triumph of the human spirit.
Inspired by true events, "The Revenant" is the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a nineteenth century frontiersman and fur trapper. While separated from his hunting party, Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear and left horribly scarred. The party, led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), struggles to keep Glass alive as the men march through the wilderness. Believing him to be on the brink of death, the men reluctantly abandon Glass at the behest of one of the party, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Remarkably, Glass slowly recovers from his injuries and journeys to find and exact vengeance upon Fitzgerald for betraying him.
DiCaprio may be first-billed on the posters, but the real star of "The Revenant" is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won two back-to-back Oscars for "Birdman" and Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" (another gorgeous epic of survival). Lubezki's astonishing work can be seen as a sort of flip-side to John Seale's work on "Mad Max: Fury Road;" you feel the face-melting heat of the latter's post-apocalyptic setting as intensely as you feel the skin-cracking cold of the former's western landscapes. Also, Lubezki's use of natural lighting is icing on the cake.
As for the actual stars in front of Lubezki's lens, their work is equally impeccable. DiCaprio displays more than 100 percent commitment to his work as Glass. It's an incredible departure from the more talky roles he had in "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Django Unchained." No other leading man this awards season has surrendered body and soul to their craft as willingly as DiCaprio does in this film. Hardy is also exceptional as Fitzgerald, even though his arc begins and ends with the huge scar on his scalp.
For the most part, "The Revenant" succeeds in its attempts to portray Glass's perilous journey as realistically gritty as possible. This is layered with some beautifully shot dream sequences which flesh out Glass's character and the film's themes regarding the will to survive, nature, tensions between white men and Native Americans, and divine justice. All of this is handled very well, but when the revenge aspect rears its ugly head, the film stumbles a bit. Iñárritu is surprisingly content to let the heated exchanges between protagonist and antagonist play out in a clichéd manner, which may leave some wondering why they watched over two hours of realism (and some surrealism) lead up to a clichéd ending that a less-experienced filmmaker could've made quite easily.
Perhaps what is a bit more disappointing is that the film's impact does not linger as long as it should have. Granted there are some violent images that will probably be burned into some viewers' brains, but the overall effort lacks the everlasting effect it strives for. However, if DiCaprio and Lubezki are singled out as the sole reasons for seeing "The Revenant," it will certainly amaze beyond expectations.