Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant declares its intention to be a metaphysical meditation on death and resurrection as well as a nail-biting action movie in its first few scenes. Disconnected images of a wife, a child, and a lost paradise float before the eyes of Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio), a fur trapper in early nineteenth-century America. The dreamy montage soon gives way to the reality of Glass’s world – his camp comes under attack from a Native American tribe. The assault is depicted in a series of lengthy and complex camera movements that reveal the brutality and chaos but also the poetry of the landscape. The tone of a quest for other-worldliness interrupted by the compulsions of fulfilling worldly duties has been set.

A title card at the end of Inarritu’s survival epic describes it as a partial adaption of Michael Punke’s 2003 bestseller of the same name. The novel is a fictionalised version of the storied – and probably embellished – legend of Glass, who was mauled by a grizzly bear during an expedition and left for dead by two of his colleagues. According to the legend, whose main source was Glass, he crawled for hundreds of miles and foraged on whatever was available before being rescued and nursed back to health by a native American tribe. Driven by vengeance and the loss of his precious rifle, Glass finally tracked down the men who abandoned him. The tale of survival against the odds and obsessive revenge is set against a backdrop of territorial disputes between native Americans and settlers for the resources and riches of the American West.

The Hugh Glass story has been previously adapted for the screen, such as in the strictly functional Man in the Wilderness (1971). The latest version by Inarittu and Mark L Smith retains the bits of the yarn that matter and shreds the rest. The Revenant picks up aspects of Glass’s life from other published accounts, especially a relationship with a native American woman, to weave a mystical meditation on revenge and redemption. Unlike Punke’s novel, the movie emphasises the conquest of native Americans and the erasure of their way of life. The anti-Western opens on a battlefield, where Glass’s wife (Grace Dove) has been slaughtered by French soldiers, and there are repeated references to the real victims of the frontier spirit.

Floating above a dance between perfidy and courage is the presence of spirits and the Creator. Existential streaks, spiritual references, poetic allusions and Christian compassion have flashed through all of Inarittu’s films since his brilliant debut, Amores Perros, in 2000. The ponderousness that marked 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful was absent in Birdman, Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. The 2014 Oscar-decorated movie about a has-been actor who is attempting to stage a play is packed with levity and is a showcase for the formidable talents of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

The Revenant takes an altogether more sorrowful approach, and Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is less of a bloodthirsty frontiersman than a searcher. Glass has a stronger motive for revenge than in the novel – the murder of his half-breed son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). As Glass picks up his mauled and scarred body and begins the long trek towards finding Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter), who buried him alive, Inarittu and Lubezki create a haunting landscape of moral bleakness in which the capacity for cruelty in humans far outweighs the unpredictability of nature.

Lubezki is also a frequent collaborator of Terrence Malick, and that existential master’s touches are present in the fabulously complex and swirling lengthy takes, intense close-ups, and extreme long shots. There are traces of Russian masters like Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as tributes to Japanese samurai films in the treatment of the geography and the melancholic background score.

A movie that is about a near-death experience throbs with alertness to the tiny details of life. The sound design picks up the thrum of Glass’s laboured breathing and the rustle of the snow as he lumbers across the terrain. The grizzly bear attack sequence, one of the movie’s set pieces, all too acutely captures the extent of damage suffered by Glass. The locations (the film was shot mostly in Canada) are washed in blue and white with swathes of blood-red, and the eye-watering visual flourishes endure even when the plot gets unwieldy towards the end. Inarittu swaps the clarity of the novel’s vision – plain and simple revenge – for a spiritual quest for the unknown. The director’s control over material that is felt and experienced, rather than explained, wobbles towards the end of the 156-minute film.

As a test of endurance, both for the character and the actor playing him, The Revenant pushes DiCaprio into unchartered territory. The talented actor has only a few sheets of dialogue and acres of land mass to navigate. He is deeply convincing in what is largely a silent and physical performance, conveying his agony through grunts and grimaces. Tom Hardy as the antagonist John Fitzgerald is effective as the most straightforward character in the story, but he is also the easiest to place. (The movie also stars Domhnall Gleeson as the leader of the expedition.) Fitzgerald will stop at nothing to earn a buck, and his mission pales in significance to Glass’s journey into his own soul, aided by visions of his dead wife. A revenant is a person who has returned from the dead, but as is masterfully depicted by Inarittu, Hugh Glass is actually crossing over to the other side.