Review: Ice-cold revenge, angry bears, and Tom Hardy all terrify in ‘The Revenant’

History is written in blood by tooth and claw and gunpowder, and no recent film makes that point with more graphic impact than “The Revenant.” Based on a novel that tells the story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper who was attacked by a bear and then left for dead by the men who were supposed to tend to him, the film is a testament to punishment, both in terms of the story being told onscreen and in terms of what it must have taken to wrestle the film up onto the screen.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has been an expert chronicler of human suffering so far in his career, and it makes his films difficult emotional experiences. I still remember that sinking feeling I got when I saw “Amores Perros” in the theater the first time. I felt it again during “Babel” and again during last year's “Birdman.” Innaritu seems to be fascinated by some of the darkest corners of the human heart, and it doesn't matter if the destruction comes from without or within. What matters most to him as a filmmaker is how we pick ourselves up and continue after we have been shattered, and to that end, “The Revenant” feels like the ultimate expression of what he's been chasing in his work so far.

The screenplay, adapted by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith from the historical novel by Michael Punke, doesn't try to tell the story accurately. It hits some of the main points of the true story of Hugh Glass, but Inarritu and Smith have built this to focus on one main relationship, that between Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald is just one of the men who are part of a major fur-gathering expedition in the Big North. There's an Indian attack that opens the film that is pretty much a virtual reality sequence. The closest thing I can compare it to is those CircleVision 360 theaters at the Disney parks, where you stand in the middle of a room that is completely surrounded by screens that are several stories high. It's an insane visual experience, one that I first experienced as a child, and one that I revisited several times over the years including a couple of times in the early '90s under the influence of some severely mind-altering chemicals. CircleVision 360 was meant to drop you into an experience, and you felt like you held a physical space in the scene you were watching. That's exactly what Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have accomplished here, and it's a startlingly beautiful and visceral film. Forget about talks about “long one shots,” because the work that's being done in this film is so profoundly technically advanced that I hardly know how to start to break it down. I counted something like five impossible camera moves in the first ten minutes of the film, and each one made me laugh because of the audacity. These guys are taking full advantage of what is capable, using the highest tech to create things that make us question the reality of what we're seeing.

Take the bear attack that serves as the centerpiece of the film's first half, for example. I am terrified of bears. I think they are remarkable animals, majestic and beautiful, and I am all about allowing them to enjoy their natural habitat. I hope bears are always able to sustain their place in our ecosystem. I also hope I never have any occasion to cross paths with a bear in the wild, because I have no business traipsing around in their habitat. Just as I would feel justified in shooting and killing any bear that I happened to find in my apartment, I think a bear is well within its rights to eat me if I happen to stroll through its home. Glass is searching for food to help feed the various people being led by Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson in one of the 4076 performances he gave this year) and he stops, hearing something in the underbrush. A group of baby bears come tumbling out, and as the camera moves around so we can see the relief on Glass's face, there is a growl from the dense foliage behind him. Before he can bring himself all the way around, the mother bear explodes forward, and my worst nightmare unfolds. It is a savage, insane sequence, and if you've ever wondered exactly why bears are dangerous, this will answer your questions.

Remember the Werner Herzog film “Grizzly Man”? You know the scene in the film where Herzog listens to the actual attack that ended the life of Timothy Treadwell, and he tells the family, “You must never listen to this tape”? Well, the bear attack in “The Revenant” is what Herzog was listening to. It is a spectacularly staged sequence, and I'll be honest… I don't know exactly what I was looking at. Considering how real it looks, they may well have just told Di Caprio, “Look, if you want that Oscar, you're going to have to let the bear maul you. We'll try to stop it before you die, but if we fail, just know… it'll look sensational.” There's a moment in the middle of the attack where the mother bear, satisfied that she's neutralized the threat, wanders back over to her cubs, and Glass manages to drag himself over to his rifle. He squeezes off one shot, and in doing so, he manages to infuriate the bear all over again, leading to another round of violent attacks. It's a sensational sequence, and once again demonstrates just how high a technical level of accomplishment Innaritu and Lubezki are working at these days.

The film is full of stark, brutal imagery, though, from start to finish. The bear attack is the worst thing that happens to Hugh Glass, but the entire film presents the wilderness as an unforgiving landscape, and while I get tired of hearing the term “tone poem” in film reviews, there is an otherworldly quality to the way the film's been shot. I've heard some people try to compare this to the work of Terrence Malick, but that is almost completely wrong-headed. Sure, Malick has used Lubezki to shoot a film, and sure, there's a lot of nature photography in Malick's films, but in terms of world view, they couldn't be more opposed. Malick believes in man as a part of nature, constantly struggling to find his place in the order of things, but Inarritu sees nature as a terrifying force that is determined to pound man flat for daring to have the hubris to challenge it. The trappers who Hugh Glass was hired to lead into the wilderness are close to finished with their haul when they are attacked by the Indians who nearly destroy all of them. While the attack seems random at first, there is an underlying reason for it, and that reason becomes a running thread in the film. While Hugh Glass and his righteously earned revenge is the main focus of the movie, “The Revenant” is about the way revenge in general works, and the single-minded nature of it.

In the case of Glass, he knows exactly who the architect of his misery is. After the bear attack, Fitzgerald wants to leave him for dead and keep moving. What Fitzgerald does is detestable, and Glass is the only witness to just how bad things get. When he goes after Fitzgerald, it's for a reason. The Indians who are on their trail for the entire film have a very real reason to be angry, but they're constantly on the heels of the wrong people. Revenge makes madmen of us, and when that happens, the whole world becomes our enemy. Di Caprio is punished almost non-stop in the film, and as a performance, it's a fascinating thing. There's very little about this that I would call “pretend.” Inarritu threw a major challenge at Di Caprio and Hardy and the rest of the performers, and they rose to the occasion. This is along the lines of what Jim Caviezel did in Mel Gibson's “Passion Of The Christ.” It is a record of an experience that Di Caprio really had, and it is astonishing just to witness.

There's a point in the script, late in the film, where the narrative actively leaves behind the true story in order to wrap things up in a clean and timely manner, and it's like the script gets exponentially dumber in a matter of pages. People suddenly make very bad choices for no reason whatsoever, and while there's a pretty rousing final encounter between Glass and Fitzgerald, how the film gets there is disappointing. There was no way the film was going to tell the entire true story, which took years longer than this, but it's frustrating to see that the one section of the film that is wholly created is the least impressive part of it.

Even so, “The Revenant” is a powerful theatrical event, with a tremendous score by Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. The way Stephen Mirrione wrestled the mountain of footage shot by Inarritu and Lubezki into the savage final product that Fox is releasing is an impressive illustration of just how much art there is to editing. Jack Fisk's production design feels raw and found, never artificial. It is as impressive as any movie released this year, but the storytelling falters in some fundamental ways that keep me from completely adoring it. Innaritu dreams big, and he has the muscle to back it up. “The Revenant” may not be his best film yet, but it's hard to imagine many filmmakers who are working at a higher level than he is these days.

“The Revenant” arrives in theaters on Christmas Day.