“The Revenant” asks a lot of its audience, but it gives so much back.

Like all great historical epics, “The Revenant” strikes a balance between mythology and realism. Here, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu (“Birdman”) turns the classic American myth of the mountain men into an indulgent treatise on the human animal. In his West, humanity regresses once more into pure instinctual survival, and sheer brutality determines who receives the bounty of the untouched wilderness. Centering on a conflict between two men, “The Revenant” paints a greater picture of a lawless America.

Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) is Hugh Glass — less a character and more anguish incarnate. After being mauled by a bear on a hunting expedition, he’s left for dead without food or supplies and must travel 200 miles back to civilization. His is a true story you may have heard before — it’s been retold many times in American fiction and, more recently, shared frequently on social media. His beaten, pained struggle is depicted intimately and ferociously. While DiCaprio embraced his slick, pretty-boy frattiness in “The Wolf of Wall Street” to brilliant effect, he completely sheds it here. You’ll forget about the kid in “Titanic.” Regardless of whether or not Leo gets the Oscar gold for this one, he’s thoroughly demonstrated his range.

His nemesis, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, “Mad Max: Fury Road”), provides the perfect foil to Glass’s legendary hero. Tom Hardy has a hyper-masculine gruffness in many of his movies, but the man has so much talent that he rarely treads familiar ground. Whether he’s playing Bane, Mad Max or Fitzgerald, he’s a different enough badass to remain thoroughly engaging. He is truly one of the greatest leading men in the business, and his turn here as a villain with painfully human motives is one of his greatest roles.

This is a two-and-a-half hour epic. Human pain and suffering are a constant, and the utter brutality of it all is often tough to sit through. What’s so special about the violence in this film, though, is that it never feels like movie violence, like that in “The Hateful Eight.” There’s a time and place for over-the-top gore, but the decision to keep the violence realistically horrifying adds so much to “The Revenant” ’s impact. A Tarantino revenge picture this is not.

But the key to this film is not the immaculately sequenced battle scenes, as impressive as they are. It’s the immaculate portraiture of the American West performed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also worked with Iñárritu on “Birdman”). Each frame of this film is masterful nature photography. And like a lion curled up on a warm rock, Lubezki lingers. And lingers some more. Instead of assigning nature a nihilistic hopelessness like in “The Hateful Eight,” Lubezki’s nature is imbued with religious purpose. It’s an indulgence in the instinctual human affinity to nature. Rarely has a film felt so present in its setting. In the time you spend with “The Revenant,” you will be there. It won’t be comfortable.

The procession out of my showing of “The Revenant” could only be described as a funeral dirge. Never have I seen a more silent crowd shuffling out of a packed theater. Take that as you will.

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