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Cinema Signal: This adventure saga is major filmmaking with unbelievable dramatic elements. Green light. MOBILE version |
. "The Revenant"

In European folklore, a revenant is a corpse that returns from the grave to terrorize the living. In this case the word aptly applies to a revenge movie inspired by the story of what one man willingly suffered in pursuit of the twisted psychopath who murdered his son. The pursuit itself isn't what made Hugh Glass a legend -- it was an event that occurred along the way.

An American fur trapping team working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. is hastily packing their considerable bounty from the wilds of Montana high country as a small party led by frontiersman and scout Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, ("Inception") hunts for deer to sustain them on their long and arduous trek back. Though Glass downs a magnificent buck with his flintlock rifle, he's forced to abandon his game when the group comes under attack by a fierce band of native Indians whose arrows begin a slaughter.

To the Arikara, this is their land and the Americans are trespassing thieves.

Under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Donhnall Gleeson), co-owner of the company who seems always to be in over his head, the trappers make great haste to leave the mountain forest with as much of their skins as they can carry. When Glass rejoins the main group, the sinister element of the story comes in the form of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy ("The Drop")), a deranged loud-mouth who complains about every decision. But his toxic invective then turns to Glass, trying to convince the team's scout to leave and take his half-breed son, Hawk, (Forrest Goodluck) with him.

The epic tale of Hugh Glass, a real-life man of inspiring legend as recorded in Michael Punke's 1823 adventure account, "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, is directed by Inarritu, co-writing with screenwriter Mark L. Smith. The setting reeks with authenticity and the grandeur of its locations standing-in for South Dakota and down the Missouri River.

Punke's account of what is known about Glass leaves enough blanks in the true account to allow dramatization, suspense and the central character's jaw-dropping determination, a revenant. This leads us to the scene that created the legend. Making his way alone along the banks of the Missouri river toward the relative safety of the company boat, Glass comes upon a mother grizzly bear protecting her two cubs. Just in time for the family dinner.

What ensues is the most realistically violent and savage attack on a human being that I've ever seen on film. With the animal ripping Glass's scalp, puncturing his throat, breaking his leg and inflicting damage on other body parts, Glass, having dropped his flintlock rifle out of reach, fights back with desperation.

We see it all from one angle, close to the ground, the agony gripping us in awe as Glass's body is mauled and flipped with fury, then suddenly pumnched upward. The effect is galvanizing. It is the stuff of nightmares, calling for meticulous choreography and a mastery of CGI. But, even if you know all that, its terrorizing.

The audience with which I saw the film is said to have gasped, yelped, cover their eyes and walked out. I was frozen (and still am) in disbelief. This scene is enough of a reason for serious moviegoers with a spine for such cold-bloody savagery who haven't yet seen it to catch it asap.

Fortunately for Glass, he survives. I won't go into how, but he comes out of it with little between his ravaged body and the vultures flying overhead.

As the key turning point, his condition gives Fitzgerald the opportunity to kill Glass's half-Pawnee son and cunningly convince Captain Henry and the company's survivors to leave Glass to die and abandoning him in a shallow grave, in the snow and sleet, alive enough to experience his own, painful end, within sight of his son's dead body.

Instead, this pivotal moment begins a relentless pursuit that seems incredible... a paeon to man's spirit, relentlessness and need for justice at any cost.

Among films of intense violence, the bear scene is a peak of fearsome animal power that makes Sam Peckinpah's first spurting-blood-from-bullet-wound effect (in "The Wild Bunch") -- which was a sensation in 1969 filmmaking -- seem restrained. In the bear scene, there's no spurting blood, but what's been done to Glass's body is easy enough to imagine and is made even more visible when he self-cauterizes his wounds.

In a subplot with a subtle point about man's diversity, a French team of trappers abduct the daughter of a tribal chief whose path Glass crosses tirelessly leading a search party.

While there's truth in the criticism that Inarritu's story construction meanders, you must admire his gutty realization of the film's challenges and intensity. Certainly, one mark of directorial skill lies in his choreography of DiCaprio's movements with the unexcelled realism of the CGI bear's horrifying attack.

On the production side you have skill to match in Emmanuel Lubezki's grand cinematatography, Bryce Dessner's (& others') music, Jack Fisk's production design, Jacqueline West's costume design and every other aspect of a saga of this magnitude. I have no problem calling this one of the most important films of 2015.

Tom Hardy, it would seem, was born to make us hate him, and he's superbly up to his masterful villainy again, making our blood boil with a loathing of his character so severe that it impacts our sympathy for Glass to have his justice, no matter what obstacles or injury along the way.

DiCaprio's taking on a role requiring such extremes of physical discomfort and punishment was daring and adventurous. It's a demonstration of what an actor may be willing to suffer without illusion or CGI enhancement. That is a real snow-fed mountain river he plunges into time after time and, while the injuries are only played, the strain of doing so across rocky, icy terrain is evident and worthy of accolades.

It's a rare performance that intertwines the character with an appreciation of what the actor had to do to achieve it -- which sets a new standard of physical sacrifice for the realization of a role. It will probably be considered DiCaprio's best work, but any way you look at what rigors he went through, you've got to give him that he's one tough hombre in the name of artistic realism. What other dramatic medium demands as much?

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, fur trader of 1823.

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