Pain is the overriding theme of Alejandro Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” about the exploits of the 19th-century American fur trader Hugh Glass. Famous for surviving a grizzly attack and then dragging himself across 200 miles of South Dakota terrain to civilization, Glass is played by a full-throated, fiery-eyed Leonardo DiCaprio in a role that requires more screaming than speaking. There’s more to his story, but “The Revenant” is mostly concerned with reducing you, the viewer, to the same subhuman state as Glass — another animal, injured and frightened, roaming the wilderness.
That won’t be everyone’s idea of a good time, but for fans of gut-wrenching survival stories — and of spectacular filmmaking — “The Revenant” will mark one of the best movies of the year. It’s brutal and bloody, audaciously entertaining and visually stunning. DiCaprio’s Glass spends much of this movie on a rugged roller-coaster of rivers, rapids and runaway horses, and wherever he goes, you go, even if it’s straight off a cliff. Filmed in long, single takes that beggar belief, “The Revenant” is a thrilling, almost physical experience.
Based partly on Michael Punke’s historical novel, “The Revenant” features several excellent actors playing real (if embellished) characters. Domnhall Gleeson is Captain Henry, who leaves the mauled Glass in the care of two colleagues, young Jim Bridger (a convincing Will Poulter, “The Maze Runner”) and a nasty piece of work named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, frighteningly good). Abandoned by both, Glass begins his long journey. He’s driven partly by the will to survive (a “revenant” is a person who returns from the dead) and partly by a thirst for revenge.
The story can feel a tad repetitive — DiCaprio eats an awful lot of rare meat — and there’s a subplot involving a kidnapped Indian maiden (Grace Dove) that smacks of macho fantasy. “Birdman” aside, Iñárritu movies can be dour affairs (“Babel,” “Biutiful”), and “The Revenant” has its self-indulgent moments. Here, though, these feel like minor flaws. Everything is designed for maximum sensory impact, from the frostbitten cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki to the hallucinatory score by Alva Noto and the great Ryuichi Sakamoto. Relentlessly intense from start to finish, “The Revenant” is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, if only because you might not survive a second viewing.