Many things can be said about Alejandro G. Iñárritu as a filmmaker, but that he's timid isn't one of them. The Revenant, the director's follow-up to Birdman, is as far from a cushy post-Oscar victory lap as one can possibly get, featuring extended takes in hellish locations, stunts seemingly lifted from a snuff film, and well-documented reports of tormented extras. Judged on a scene-by-scene basis, it often feels like one of the most amazing movies ever made, with Emmanuel Lubezki's breathtaking cinematography capturing every vivid facet of nature's teeth and claws.
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Taken as a whole, however, the lack of tonal variance and unrelenting bleakness end up serving the director's monumental ambition more than the relatively sparse narrative. Still, even when it verges on self-parody—this is a movie where a character is listed in the end credits as Dave Stomach Wound—the sheer mad bravura on display makes it impossible to dismiss. After all, how many times do you get to see someone attempt to best Malick and Herzog and Apocalypse-era Coppola with one go?
Inspired by Michael Punke's novel (which itself played fast and loose with the historical record), the story follows 19th-century fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), left for dead in the Montana wilderness following a horrific bear attack. After crawling out of his own grave, he begins painstakingly making his way back to civilization to find the man who done him wrong (Tom Hardy).
Deprived of half his throat for most of the picture, DiCaprio gives an intensely physical, self-contained performance, the effect of which is weirdly diminished by the film's insistence on capturing virtually every tortured step that the character takes. When you've already started frothing at the mouth 45 minutes in, there may not be that much further you can really go.
Hardy, meanwhile, is all about the external. An actor who has never needed much prompting to take it over the top, he goes full goony bird here, sporting a mush-mouthed dialect that drifts between entertainingly odd and downright unintelligible. (The bear may be easier to understand, frankly.)
Movies that capture the uncapturable should always have a place, and The Revenant contains more than enough moments of undeniable how-in-the-hell astonishment to lodge itself permanently into the viewer's brain. (Seriously, take that first half hour directly to the Smithsonian.) Ultimately, though, Iñárritu's bald insistence on making a masterpiece swallows up everything else. Well before the exquisitely staged, oh-so-symbolic close, the question of exactly whose indomitable will the film is documenting seems pretty clear.