Revenge, it's said, is a dish best served cold. In Alejandro González Iñárritu's symphony of savagery, The Revenant, it's served frozen, bloody and without mercy. Sometimes by a bear. It's a stunning accomplishment on multiple fronts.
For example: Weren't we just speculating on the Oscar chances of Iñárritu's stunning accomplishment Birdman? That the filmmaker created an epic of this scope between award seasons is nothing short of mind-boggling. That it's an even better movie than Birdman only makes it crazier.
Somehow the writer-director-workaholic persuaded several of Hollywood's most pampered stars to join him in the frigid mountain forests of Canada and Argentina to shoot a harrowingly realistic saga of frontier survival. For some reason, they agreed not only to brave brutally inhospitable elements but to do their own stunt work, as well. It's a long way from The Wolf of Wall Street to the untamed landscape in which Leonardo DiCaprio challenges actual wolves for the carcass of a buffalo.
Nearly unrecognizable behind a scraggly beard, covered in animal skins and limited to dialogue consisting primarily of grunts and groans, the five-time Best Actor nominee goes seriously method for the role of Hugh Glass. The real-life tracker and fur trapper got screwed over by members of an expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) in 1823. Here's where the bear comes in.
After the party is ambushed in spectacularly grisly fashion by Arikara Native Americans, the survivors lick their wounds while Glass ventures off to get his bearings. Instead, he gets attacked by a wild-eyed grizzly with cubs nearby. The sequence — shot in one continuous take — is as technically impressive as it is horrific. You may know the beast is nothing more than millions of pixels. But when it claws meat from Glass' throat, sinks its teeth into his arm and slams him to the ground like a rag doll, you believe every bone-crunching second.
The bear, we soon learn, isn't the only animal in the vicinity. Tom Hardy costars as a thug named John Fitzgerald. When the captain decides to make for a far-off fort, he finds the terrain's too steep to haul Glass over and orders Fitzgerald to remain behind, tend to him until he succumbs to his wounds and give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald keeps his promise to bury Glass. He just doesn't wait for him to die.
Based loosely on Michael Punke's 2002 novel and adapted by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, The Revenant chronicles the fractured figure's improbable odyssey to that same fort in search of vengeance, performed under the most hostile conditions imaginable. It's a mesmerizing meditation on the power of sheer will to overcome obstacles and odds, and DiCaprio is never less than convincing.
With an assist from master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu keeps the visual wonders coming for the film's full 156 minutes. It's a moviegoing experience that's immersive, exhausting and truly thrilling. I don't remember the last time almost three hours flew by as fast.
Fun fact: Why haven't you seen Punke making the PR rounds with the picture's director and stars? Because he'd be breaking the law! In 2009, President Obama appointed the author U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva (he's got a legal background). As a government employee, Punke is prohibited by ethics rules from promoting his literary work in any way that could enrich him. He's written the basis for a Best Picture nominee and No. 1 film at the box office, and he's the only author with those credentials who could be locked up for going on "Charlie Rose"!