They say The Revenant is “inspired” by true events. If that’s so you just have to marvel at the sheer will to survive on the part of fur trapper and explorer Hugh Glass, who in the 1820s was brutally mauled by a Grizzly bear, left for dead, then journeyed 200 miles in the snowy wilderness to exact revenge on his betrayer.

pete hammond review badgeAs I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), I do suspect that this film version may also have been inspired by past cinematic attempts to tell this tale including the 1971 Richard Harris movie Man In The Wilderness, which I recall with fondness having seen it many years ago. It is basically the same story, though the filmmakers here — director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith — have based their take in part on the Michael Punke novel. Whatever the source material, the results from a cinematic point of view are stunning.

González Iñárritu, coming off an Oscar win for Birdman, has again shown his command of the medium as he takes on a physically challenging production that is second to none in sheer scope and ambition. This is a film that is primal to the max, relentless, demanding, and doesn’t let up in a bruising, dark and at times very uncomfortable story of one man’s will and determination. It helps to have Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role as this actor is well known for giving his all. But he has really gone beyond the call of duty this time, turning in a near-wordless silent movie-style performance that is the essence of great screen acting. He does it mostly with his eyes and body to convey the inner spirit of a true survivor bound to wreak revenge on his betrayer, John Fitzgerald, played with zeal and deliciously evil style by Tom Hardy. There is a fine supporting cast who also deserve medals for getting through the elements on display including Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter and Forrest Goodluck.

Most of González Iñárritu’s past films explore the darker side of humanity and this one is no different. He took a rare foray into comedy with Birdman, but Revenant marks a return to basics for the director of such works as Babel, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and, my personal favorite, Biutiful, which was every bit as tough to watch as Revenant but also had an emotional undercurrent that, at least for me, is missing from this snowy Western which represents the director’s first stab at a historical piece. (I could barely talk after I saw Biutiful in Cannes.)

Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a kind of spiritual lift present in Revenant and even a ray of hope, but I had a hard time connecting with the human element the way I have in González Iñárritu’s previous films. Maybe I was blinded by all that snow. That said, the filmmaking here is nothing short of dazzling.   González Iñárritu and his two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki have achieved an extraordinary look using only natural light for this grueling ride. If Chivo has dominated the Oscar race for cinematography the past few years with such landmark works as The Tree Of Life, Gravity and Birdman, his work here is no less astounding or groundbreaking. There are also top contributions from production designer Jack Fisk, editor Stephen Mirrione and some extraordinary special effects for that instant-classic bear attack scene that simply has to be seen to be believed. The fact that I had a hard time accepting that bear was not real is a real testament to the visual effects team led by Gravity’s Rich McBride — that scene drew applause at the screening I attended.

The violence and man’s battle with not only nature but human nature is as realistic as you can get, but some understandably just may not want to go there. There is no question what DiCaprio goes through on screen is an endurance test, as it will also be with an element of the audience who may find themselves in a fight for survival just to get through what González Iñárritu and company have put on screen in a remarkable and challenging film that won’t be for everyone. But if you have the same sense of adventure that inspired the making of this movie, it is a must-see when it opens beginning with a platform engagement on Christmas Day and going wide January 8.

Producers of the 20th Century Fox and New Regency film are González Iñárritu, Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Mary Parent, Keith Redmon and James Skotchdopole.

Do you plan to see The Revenant?  Let us know what you think.