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The audience is not a distant spectator in "The Revenant," as director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki the team who gave "Birdman" its visceral punch take us into the middle of some harrowing experiences.
Our companions on this trip are the members of a fur-trapping expedition in 1823, in the hills and plains of what is now Montana and South Dakota. As the movie starts, trouble is just beginning: A group of Arikara Indians are attacking the trappers, and the audience is in the thick of it with them. Lubezki's camera pirouettes amid the trappers and Indians as men fall to arrows, gunshots and clubs all around.
The surviving contingent of trappers escapes down the river and regroups. The leader, Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), makes the decision to stash their valuable pelts and head back to civilization, relying on their guide, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). That plan serves the crew well until Glass steps into the territory of a bear and in a scene that's overwhelming in its visual intensity and computer-animated horror is mauled gruesomely.
Capt. Henry offers a reward to any man who will stay behind to tend to the barely alive Glass. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) takes the offer, but as soon as Henry leaves, Fitzgerald tries to bury Glass before he's dead. When Glass' half-Indian teen son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), tries to save his father, Fitzgerald kills him.
Fitzgerald returns to the fort and lies to Henry that he tried to save Glass from the approaching Arikara. But Glass somehow has survived, crawling across the snowy wilderness for days, encountering people both friendly and hostile, as he's driven to stay alive by his desire for revenge against Fitzgerald.
Iñárritu makes the audience feel every moment of Glass' struggle for survival, because the director puts us right there with him. Lubezki's camera is alongside Glass as he cuts open a dead horse for heat, and gets so up in Glass' face that his breath fogs the lens in a moment of fourth-wall busting that one may find gripping or annoying.
Lubezki shot "The Revenant" using only natural light, relying mostly on sunshine filtered through trees or reflected off the snow of the remote Canadian locations. The effect is eerie and sometimes majestic, as Lubezki usually has his camera pointed up to capture as much light as possible and having the added effect of showing how small Glass is in comparison to the wilderness.
DiCaprio gives a fiercely dynamic performance, as he guts out every move Glass makes to stay alive and keep his righteous rage burning. That fire illuminates every inch of "The Revenant" and blazes in the memory long after the last fade-out.
A pulse-raising adventure on the frontier, with astonishing camerawork and a fierce performance by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Jan. 8.
Rating • R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.
Running time • 156 minutes.