‘Revenant’ impressively depicts splendor, amorality of nature

Seeking new pinnacles a year after his “Birdman” triumph, writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in “The Revenant,” strives to elevate a snowy, bloody revenge story into a mind-blowing, metaphysically charged survival drama. He comes up short but still delivers a sensorially extraordinary wilderness thriller.

Cowritten with Mark L. Smith and “based in part” on Michael Punke’s novel, this big-screen adventure dramatizes the legendary aspects of the life of Hugh Glass, the real-life 19th-century fur trapper and frontiersman who survived a bear mauling and abandonment by fellow hunters.

In 1832, Glass, played by an uglified Leonardo DiCaprio, and fellow trappers are hunting near the Missouri River. A deadly attack by Arikara tribe members prompts Glass to escape with other survivors. These include greedy, villainous John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), young, conscience-plagued Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and group captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).

The calm doesn’t last long. Quickly, in a horrifying passage that deserves visual-effects trophies, Glass is nearly torn to pieces by a mama grizzly bear. As he lies near death, his fellow trappers desert him.

This betrayal, and an act of shocking brutality committed by Fitzgerald, stirs up a desire for revenge that keeps Glass alive and forging onward through the frozen landscape.

Inarritu isn’t subtle. As Glass sets his throat on fire to prevent infection, or eats a raw animal organ to refrain from starving, or cuts open a dead horse, removes its guts, and uses the carcass as a tent, among other visceral acts, expect to feel assaulted.

In trying to make Glass’ journey about something nobler than mere revenge, Inarritu has added spirituality to Glass’ ordeal. Yet the bond Glass has with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a fictional character, is weakly developed and feels false and flat. The same goes for Hawk’s dead mother, who shows up in apparitions that seem designed to give Glass, an invader by trade, a connection to the Native American world.

The drama may be hit-and-miss, but the film has exquisite and sometimes astonishing moments (which don’t exist in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hatebful Eight,” another current revenge Western, which, though inspired and entertaining, is too long).

Inarritu and “Birdman” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use natural light and Lubezki’s familiar long, unbroken takes, to create an immersing wilderness that’s beautiful, mysterious and treacherous. A Terrence Malick-style ethereal quality, dark tones and harrowing sound effects (of blizzards, whizzing arrows, the bear attack) impressively capture the splendor and amorality of nature and the baseness of humankind.

Although DiCaprio has little chance to convey the psychic transformation the filmmakers attribute to Glass, he solidly portrays the physical aspects of his character’s survival struggle. Covered in animal fur, a long beard, and snow, and uttering desperate grunts in lieu of words, he gives the film a crucial dramatic trust and the mythic tinge that the title — a French word for a person who reappears after a long absences — suggests.

The Revenant
Three stars
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter
Written by: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Rated R
Running time: 2 hours, 36 minutes

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