I know the internet has decided that we're supposed to hate Birdman, but I persist in admiring its razor-sharp presentation of a smudgy POV through sardonic, jazzy comedy. I had even allowed myself to hold out hope that was to be the salvation of Alejandro González Iñárritu, a director whose filmography started out with the dynamic, even radical Amores perros, before zooming straight to hell with his sophomoric 21 Grams. Following that, González Iñárritu became a professional purveyor of po-faced cinematic misery, with the "we are all connected by the fact that all of our lives are unbearably shitty" world-epic Babel and the smaller-scale "man suffers, then suffers some more" antics of Biutiful. And then he learned to smile. Birdman was funny. Birdman was appealingly weightless. Birdman, I am sorry to say, was a one-off.

González Iñárritu is right back to his old tricks with The Revenant, a film that weirdly aims to remake Terrence Malick's natural world tone poem The New World (with a Dead Wife Flashback that feels powerfully like the reveries in Malick's The Thin Red Line) after the fashion of The Passion of the Christ. That's not even a fair comparison. For all its ugliness, The Passion came from an unmistakably sincere place: Mel Gibson obviously believed in the spiritually purifying energy of violence and suffering, and while we all might reasonably find this repulsive, it's simply impossible to deny that the brutality doesn't come from an unashamedly heartfelt place. There's no such thing in The Revenant: its almost non-stop 156 minutes of anguish doesn't reflect a belief in any kind of transcendence, only González Iñárritu's clinical fascination with how much abuse can be piled upon a human body without forcing it to shut it down.

Adapted from Michael Punke's historical novel, the film is a fictionalised biopic of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman in the 1820s, working as a guide for a military-led fur-trapping expedition in the Louisiana Purchase. Quite without warning, the pastoral opening scene of the movie is interrupted by an ambush from an aggressive native tribe, leaving over half of the expedition dead and the rest scrambling to get the hell back to the lowly wilderness fort that serves as home, under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson, who needs to stop playing military officers until he does some weathering - between this and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he's two-for-two playing commanders who look too feckless to lead a third-grade class to a picnic lunch). Glass, in the general confusion, ends up stumbling through the woods, where he ends up between a mama grizzly and her cubs, and gets badly mauled (strangely, the CGI bear looks much better in lingering close-ups than when it's moving). He's able to stab the animal to death, and it falls on top of him its weight smothering and crushing him as he slowly bleeds out into the frozen mud. This is what you might call the beginning of all his troubles.

Over the rest of the movie, Glass will be found, tended to, and eventually written off by Henry, who asks only for volunteers to wait with with the battered guide until he dies, and give him a proper burial. One of these is Glass's own half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), one is the earnest young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and the one who proves to be Bad News, staying only after Henry offers him a substantial bribe to do so, is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who barely waits until the rest of the expedition is out of earshot to begin muttering about how they should just kill Glass and be done with it. Hawk obviously objects to this, so Fitzgerald murders him; he then leans on Bridger to go along with his scheme to lightly bury Glass and let nature do the rest. But Glass is too tough to die, and the remainder of the film finds him pulling his emaciated, broken body through the snowy forest, scrambling to find enough food to keep him moving, until he can exact revenge.

This all adds up to extremely little. Stories of surviving in the face of extraordinary odds are all well and good, but The Revenant is so attentive to joylessness that there's not really room left over. I'd say that it's when a blood-streaked, barely-vocal Glass lies curled up against his son's frozen-solid corpse weeping - less than halfway through the movie, no less - that I figured out how eager The Revenant would be to make us feel as bad as possible, but in truth it was earlier: the film had long since gone out of its way to make sure we notice the orphaned bear cubs pitifully snuffling around, looking for their dead mother. Because if you're going to feel bad, might as well feel abject, right?

With all of that being true, I must concede that for all that The Revenant is aggressively dour to the point of self-parody, it's exquisitely made. It's as handsomely mounted an exercise in raw misery porn as you are ever likely to encounter, one of the pinnacles of cinematic craftsmanship in the American film industry of 2015. The easy, obvious thing to point out is Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography: I can't even remember the last time he shot a film that wasn't a serious candidate for the year's most beautiful,* and The Revenant isn't looking to snap that run. The very worst thing I can say about is that it's ultimately redundant: the man who shot The New World hasn’t really built upon that achievement, but is content to largely replicate its salient elements (all natural lighting and firelight; extensive use of sun streaming through foliage) in a predominately wintry setting of blue rather than a summery setting of gold. There are some nice long-takes once, especially during the bear attack and then again in a riverside fight at the very end of the movie, which both recall that the man who shot The New World also shot Children of Men, though this film boasts nothing resembling the camera gymnastics of the latter movie.

Besides looking good, it sounds good: the ambient noises of forest life, distant fighting, very nearby bears, unseen water, and the constant rush of cold wind ebb and flow on the soundtrack to remarkable insinuating effect. Given that the film's overriding purpose for being is to make us feel the suffering of Hugh Glass in the most immediately tangible way, the extreme realism of the soundtrack matters immensely, and so does overall subjectivity of that realism. We're not simply in the woods, we're at a very specific place relative to dozens of audible stimuli, each one of which is placed at a very particular distance in the mix. It's really quite staggering.

The film's score is equally excellent, the result of three wildly different talents collaborating: Bryce Dessner of indie rock band The National, electronic artist Alva Noto, and Japanese experimental musician Sakamoto Ryuichi all contribute to an impressively driving, single-minded suite of music that churns along in low chords, not really forming music at all until it suddenly climaxes in a motif that resolves everything preceding into a coherent, meaningful shape. It's the most subjective thing in the whole movie, underlining, reinforcing, and guiding Glass' rugged determination to keep going at whatever cost.

As far as the human element goes, it's hard not to be moved by the copious stories of how DiCaprio subjected himself to an insane litany of punishments to make the movie, which apparently included everything shy of chopping off his own legs to eat them raw. But I'm also ineffably reminded of Laurence Olivier's advice to Dustin Hoffman's extreme Method techniques: "My boy, why don't you try acting?" I mean, yep, DiCaprio just goes right on and eats a raw bison liver and then pukes; he does this without even pausing to cook the bison liver on the giant fucking bonfire six feet away from the bison corpse, because he is real, yo. As a moviegoer, I honestly don't know that I can see the difference between DiCaprio eating and puking real liver, or eating and puking a cunningly-painted marzipan liver. Given that the actor only has one emotional register to play - agony - this verisimilitude is appropriate, but not really vital.

As for the other significant onscreen human, Hardy is amazingly out of control. His well-stocked Museum of Silly Voices gets a remarkable new exhibit that I can only think of as Mumbling Ted Levine With Some Jeff Bridges For Spice, and coupled with his crazy bug-out eyes, there's no way around it: he is being a big ol' ham. It's both terrible and wonderful; so massively inappropriate for the arch realism of the whole, that it feels like it can defensible as being a nightmare element, some incomprehensible perversion of the natural order. This also perhaps can explain why, in a film with some awkwardly modern-sounding dialogue, Hardy gets all the most glaringly unacceptable lines. Which, combined with his weird-ass delivery, results in gems like "Mebbe you shoulda raised a man. 'Stead sum girly little biyotch." A reminder that this movie is set in the 1820s.

It's so fucking gorgeous, and so immediate as a tangible experience, I have to give it a passing grade; but it's utterly starved of feeling. It is, essentially, a breathtakingly well-made geek show. Maybe the "well-made" is enough; at any rate, this is what gets Oscar nominations by the fistful these days, so that's that.