There's a scene in The Big Lebowski with Sam Elliott, in his cowboy hat, working a sarsaparilla, sitting alongside Jeff Bridges' the Dude. Elliott's the Stranger looks over at the Dude and his White Russian on the rocks and offers a drawling cowpoke koan:
"A wiser fellow than myself once said, 'Sometimes you eat the b'ar . . . and sometimes the b'ar, well, he eats you."
In The Revenant, the wild, woolly, transcendentally cinematic wilderness survival thriller, Leonardo DiCaprio's 19th-century fur trapper has his own facetime with a b'ar: a ferocious grizzly protecting her cubs.
It's not a spoiler, really, to say who eats whom in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's rip-roaring follow-up to his Oscar-winning Birdman. DiCaprio, bearded and bloodied, wears a bearskin through much of the movie. But the encounter is staggering - not just for DiCaprio's Hugh Glass, mauled and mutilated to within an inch of his life, but for the audience, beholding an interspecies confrontation rendered with unnerving realism. And the quiet beats between the violent combat - the parties stopping to take a breath, consider their fates - make it all the more visceral, suspenseful. Oscar for best b'ar fight: The Revenant (the title means someone who returns from the dead) wins hands-down.
An epic tale of revenge set in the unforgiving and unendingly beautiful frontier of 1820s Montana and South Dakota (the film was shot, by the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki, mostly in western Canada), The Revenant is exhilarating cinema.
Tom Hardy, chewing his words in deep, guttural ways, is the other, craftier nemesis of the film. The British actor, minus the postapocalyptic bondage gear of Mad Max: Fury Road, plays John Fitzgerald, a fellow trapper who leaves Glass for dead in the middle of the woods. Woods ringed by attacking Arikara tribesmen.
But Glass isn't dead, and haunted by visions of his deceased (American Indian) wife and his son, he somehow pulls his wounded self up and soldiers on. His purpose is without sway: Track Fitzgerald down and bring his life to an end.
Although tonally and contextwise completely different from one another, there is much in common between Iñárritu's The Revenant and Ridley Scott's The Martian. Both boast box-office stars with serious Oscar cred (Matt Damon and DiCaprio, costars, in fact, in Scorsese's The Departed), and both films offer accounts of almost superhuman strength, resilience, and resolve.
Damon's astronaut, Mark Watney, doesn't have a cold-blooded killer to contend with (or a b'ar), but he does have to dig deep into his soul to find the will, and the wiles, to survive. Ditto DiCaprio's Glass. And nature is a force to be reckoned with, whether it's the brutal terrain of the Red Planet or the wintry forests, jagged mountains, and raging rivers of Big Sky country.
In fact, one of the reasons to see The Revenant - and to see it on as big a screen as possible - is to take in the splendor and stunning majesty of these unspoiled landscapes. They are breathtaking. And they give Iñárritu's film a spiritual quality, a life force looming over the mere humans trudging through the snow.
Another reason: that thar b'ar.
The Revenant ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. With Leonardo DiCaprio,
Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson,
Will Poulter. Distributed by
Twentieth Century Fox.
Running time: 2 hours, 36 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, graphic violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.