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'The Revenant': Will Haunt You
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
01:52PM / Friday, January 15, 2016
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Leonardo DiCaprio faces the horrors of the early American wilderness in the ultimate survival tale 'The Revenant.'

Director Alejandro González Inarritu's "The Revenant," starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the ultimate survival tale, is the adult equivalent of those scary films when you were little that gave you nightmares for a week, causing Mom to decree, "That's it, no more watching those movies."

Chronicling the mostly true travail of Hugh Glass, a trapper in what would become the Dakota Territory, circa 1823, DiCaprio's tour de force chillingly reminds that the real horrors of life are far more frightening than anything one can conjure.

This is deadly serious stuff, unremitting in its mission to ferociously parallel the terrors capable of being unleashed by both humankind and nature. Life is distilled to its fragile nub. There is nary a moment's rest and virtually nothing that might be misconstrued for comedy relief. The screenplay by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith, adapted from the book by Michael Punke (based on preserved lore), depicts the uncanny determination of DiCaprio's frontiersman to hunt down those who left him to die after he was mauled by a bear.

It is excruciating in its gruesome attention to detail, made all the more eerie by the juxtaposition of man's brutality and the visual beauty of the location landscapes, wondrously captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Here, where Glass fights every potential cause of his demise, a slip here, or a wrong move there, the yin and yang of our existence gets a full workout, with beauteous Mother Nature all along deceivingly claiming her neutrality.

The challenge posed by human enemies, every bit as fickle and dangerous, sends us reeling in revulsion.

Trying to explain, or at least help us fathom the sense of this daunting environment, no metaphor is left unturned. But note that the scenario also pays haunting lip service to the spiritually inclined, thus allowing one to infer answers, philosophical or otherwise, from the ghostly revelations Glass envisions as he trudges forward. They are mostly images of happier times with his Native American wife, before she was brutally killed, leaving him to raise his young son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). They've embarked on the trapping expedition together.

The violent tone of the film is set right from the start, when deadly arrows from the ambushing Arikara tribe fly into the camp of the early Americans who comprise the hunting group, a semi-militaristic, company-employed troop organized under the lead of Capt. Andrew Henry. It is a bloodbath. Flush with valuable pelts, the bounty representing months of work, in chaotic defense they attempt to save both their own hides and the profits. The brigade is left at one-third of its original strength.

It's while they're licking their wounds in retreat when the mother grizzly attacks Glass in defense of her cubs. It's amazing he's still alive, but that's not the last time you'll utter that thought. He is placed on a stretcher, son Hawk at his side, the surviving men taking turns carrying him. But the snow has begun falling in earnest, and a winter none of us would care to experience, especially without benefit of that L.L. Bean parka, nears. Glass is slowing them down. What to do, what to do?

In a variation on any number of classical parables, Capt. Henry, smartly depicted by Domhnall Gleeson, offers $80 each to the two men who will stay behind and assure that Glass has a proper burial. Volunteering are Tom Hardy's superbly played Fitzgerald, an aggressive, ornery cuss whose motives are suspect, and young Bridger (Will Poulter), the novitiate with a heart. It's cold, the constant snow beckoning the men to give up and blend into its vastness. But neither they nor we are so inclined, the power of the challenge putting us in full vicarious mode.

Bad stuff happens as treachery rears its ugly head over and over in a ghastly combination of sadism and survival tactics, the two often overlapping in a cynically disparaging comment on the human condition. A cat and mouse game ensues, played out across the infinite expanse of wilderness, precious life always hanging by the slimmest thread. But while riveting, it's accompanied by the troublesome guilt experienced when you can't quite avert your eyes from a dreadful accident piled up on the side of the highway. You ask, "Why subject myself to this?"

Is it art, or something much, much older, that makes us appreciate the exquisite ugliness Inarritu has painted? That is the question. Granted, the socio-historical assumptions are fascinating. And one cannot dismiss the devotion to telling this horror, executed with the sort of blind altruism the ACLU exhibits when it defends the free speech rights of the most dastardly fiend. Plus, it's a bargain. While a ticket to "The Revenant" will cost you between $5 and $12 depending on your geography, the nightmares that follow are free.

"The Revenant," rated R, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Alejandro González Inarritu and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson. Running time: 156 minutes

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