With last year’s “Birdman,” it became clear that director Alejandro G. Inarritu no longer just wanted to make good films, he aimed to make great ones. Every scene, every shot in that film seemed designed to surpass the conventional.

Inarritu’s latest, “The Revenant”, shares that sense of kicking out the jams with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s awe-striking panoramas of primeval wilderness, enhanced by an ethereal score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Novo. The film aims high, riffing on themes of God or the lack thereof, the rape of the New World, and the uncaring indifference to nature. But it’s also just a lean, mean, revenge flick — man left for dead in the middle of nowhere returns to wreak vengeance on those who abandoned him — that’s stretched out to an arduous 2½ hours. The results feel like a Werner Herzog remake of “Mad Max.”

Based loosely on the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass, “The Revenant” drops us into the untamed Pacific Northwest of 1823, where pelt-seeking white men are clashing with warriors of the Arikara tribe. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a taciturn mountain man accompanied by his “half-breed” son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), works as a scout for an ill-fated expedition led by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), and suffers nightmares about his slain Pawnee wife.

The Revenant
Run Time 156 MINS
Language English
Opens April 22

After being ambushed by the Arikara, the survivors retreat to their gunboat, but before you can say “Aguirre,” they realize that the river is a deathtrap and decide to escape via a perilous route over the mountains. Amid falling snow, they stash their pelts — much to the dismay of the greedy, shiftless John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) — and try to outpace the pursuing “injuns.”

They don’t get far when Glass, scouting ahead, stumbles across a couple of bear cubs and their very angry mother. In an absolutely harrowing scene, the grizzly shreds Glass, but — as the film repeatedly emphasizes with numerous shots of humans and animals gnawing away at raw flesh for nourishment — this is nature, and it’s more like “The Walking Dead” than modern man cares to admit.

Glass is on the verge of death, but after much debate, his comrades move on, leaving Fitzgerald and two others to tend to him. Without spoiling things, let’s just say that Fitzgerald is in no mood to stick around, while Glass isn’t happy to be dropped in a grave while he’s still breathing. This is only one hour in; the next 90 minutes track Glass’ arduous journey back from the dead, a tale of both physical and spiritual rebirth. (And look for the allegorically vaginal shot of a bloody Glass emerging from the warm insides of a slit horse carcass.)

“The Revenant” evokes much of the past decade’s “slow cinema” — especially the penchant for tiny human figures framed against vast landscapes — and repeatedly returns to the skyward shot, looking up through towering trees to the shimmering heavens, a Terrence Malick trademark.

Yet this sense of mysticism, reinforced by visions of otherworldly Native Americans, rubs up against the film’s harsh location-shooting realism. It mostly works, but Inarritu piles on so many mishaps for poor Glass that it borders on comedy; by the time Glass accidentally rides his horse off a cliff, I half expected him to yell “D’oh!” For much of the film, DiCaprio is less a character than a punching bag, grunting, moaning and bloodied. (The best actor Oscar for this seems like a stretch.)

“Revenge is in God’s hands” is the film’s final statement, but coming after a rolling, biting dust-up between good guy and bad guy that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Marvel film, it rings hollow, and “The Revenant’s” attempts at transcendence land with a predictable third-act thud. As a wise man once said, “Sometimes you eat the b’ar, and sometimes the b’ar, well, she eats you.”

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