At a moment when Mad Max: Fury Road is being hailed as not only the best action film of the year but also one of the best films of the year, period, Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant feels like a welcome alternative. (Both films, incidentally, feature the talents of Tom Hardy.) Where Mad Max piles on one baroque flourish after another, The Revenant succeeds by grounding its action in a realism so visceral that you feel like it’s actually happening to you. That was also the case with Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, shot by The Revenant’s star director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki: watching that film’s chase scenes, many of which appeared to unfurl within a single shot, I felt like I was having a nightmare. The Revenant achieves a similarly powerful effect. Even as you begin to suspect that Inarritu is fetishizing the grittiness of his approach—that he’s getting off on the brutality of the subject matter at the same time that he’s aestheticizing it—the action sequences never feel fussy or overdone. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass tussles with an enraged grizzly bear, or goes mano a mano with his nemesis John Fitzgerald (they’re armed with a tomahawk and a knife, respectively) the action feels messy, intimate, raw, and suitably terrifying.
As many already know, The Revenant tells the story of Glass, a real-life fur trapper and scout who is left for dead after being nearly mauled to death by that bear. Glass spends the majority of the film crawling his way back through the wilderness to get revenge on Fitzgerald (Hardy), the fellow trader who executed the order to leave him behind. (In a fictionalized subplot, Fitzgerald also murders Glass’s mixed-race son by a Pawnee wife.) Hardy is appropriately monstrous as the cowardly, shifty-eyed Fitzgerald, who, in addition to conspiring to kill Glass and his son, bullies a younger partner into keeping silent about it. It’s DiCaprio’s movie, though, and his feral, nearly wordless performance is likely to win him his long-awaited first Oscar.
In the quieter moments of the film, Inarritu opts for a mystical-poetic tone, complete with hazily rendered flashbacks and surreal dream sequences. I’m not sure the film needs this; it adds a veneer of pretentiousness to what is, at bottom, a simple, gripping revenge yarn. When it’s not busy waxing lyrical, The Revenant is the best kind of white-knuckle action cinema. It doesn’t need tanks, machine guns, explosions or cyborgs. It’s got first-rate actors playing characters locked in brilliantly choreographed combat that feels like it’s playing out in real time six inches from our faces. Take that, Marvel.