The Revenant looks like a western, but is actually about the frontier as an Eden

Leonardo DiCaprio (above) is almost killed by a bear but survives to hunt down his companions who deserted him.
Leonardo DiCaprio (above) is almost killed by a bear but survives to hunt down his companions who deserted him.PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Leonardo DiCaprio is a fur trapper on the path of vengeance after a bear attack

The story: Fur trapper and scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by a bear. His companions, having survived an attack by natives, leave the badly injured Glass behind with his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).

A small windfall of good Westerns has landed, varying in tone from the meditative (Slow West, 2015) to the horrific (Bone Tomahawk, 2015) to the bloody (The Hateful Eight, now showing).

This minor revival is notable for how it has stretched the genre.

No wonder, because what used to be traditional Western stories have been appropriated by sci-fi - you have the one about the anti-hero reluctantly helping settlers defend themselves (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015) or the tribulations of migrants travelling to a promised land (The Maze Runner series).

So now, here is a movie that looks like a Western, but like the others, is actually about something else.

Mexican director and co-writer Alejandro Inarritu is fascinated by the frontier as an Eden, a place in a state of grace.

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  • THE REVENANT (M18)

    156 minutes/opens tomorrow/4/5 stars

Fitzgerald (Hardy) and white men from the "civilised" parts of the American continent bicker over money and are willing to kill for it, while the native Americans, along with some "good" whites such as Glass (DiCaprio) take from nature only what they need to live.

Nature, in the form of a bear, nearly kills Glass, but its forces also propel his feet out of the grave and on the path of vengeance.

Inarritu overlays this and other quasi-religious images on what would otherwise be a simple revenge plot. Thankfully, he keeps those touches light - a delirious Glass might see his dead wife or a fantastical landscape now and then.

The original people of Inarritu's paradise, the natives, are neither noble savages nor faceless, inscrutable killers. They are driven by relatable impulses of love and justice.

DiCaprio has a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the role, a nod that seems offered partly for acting, but mostly for suffering in sub-zero locations and noshing on raw bison liver.

But the absolute winner here is the cinematography, by Inarritu's frequent collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki. The pair scored a Best Picture Oscar for Birdman (2014) and have another Best Picture nod for The Revenant.

In the battle that opens the picture, the camera flies through the 10-minute scene without cuts.

A lot has been said about 3D's immersiveness, but in that heart- pounding sequence, as arrows cut the air, it feels real enough.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2016, with the headline 'Mauled and all out for revenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe