I was semi-eager to see this, although I also expected it to amount to less than what it’s made out to be. I didn’t really like Birdman—and no one I know liked Birdman… did anyone you know like Birdman?—and I was expecting the same kind of overblown pretension and sense that it is REALLY deep when it’s simply not all that deep, which is precisely what I got. As another critic says: “Iñárritu makes deeply stupid movies laced with pretension that generally reveal he doesn't have much insight into the things he's ostensibly educating his audience about.” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
We open with DiCaprio as Hugh Glass talking his young son through near-death after a raid on his village. It is the early United States. We gather that his wife was killed, and it looks like his son was, too, but later we find that Glass talked him through it and he survived, and is now 17 or so. He and Glass are hunting when their band of hunters are attacked by Indians, in a quite complex and bravura sequence of lengthy tracking shots that move from mayhem to mayhem. They escape and we start to be aware of Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald, who clearly has a problem with Glass and especially his boy, Hawk. The film and his costume get a lot of excellent mileage out of the ignorant/selfish/bitter persona Hardy expresses through his eyes alone. Glass insists they have to leave their pelts behind and escape on foot, but Fitzgerald doesn’t want to risk losing them [and his profits], and makes clear that he thinks Glass is an idiot.
By now you are obviously noticing that this film has stunning scenery, which is because they filmed all in outdoor locations in Canada and Argentina. It kind of occurred to me that perhaps we’re coming to the point in which unspoiled nature is rare enough in real life that we have to see it in the movies—a bit like in Soylent Green. There are numerous stories about the hardships the cast and crew went through—it’s the gimmick of this film, just like the illusion of an unbroken shot was the pointless gimmick of the last one—and, you know, pretty scenery. I was trying to think if I would care if the scenery was CGI, and I thought, only if it was so bad as to be noticeable. So it’s a bit like Gravity in that it’s largely a technical achievement with an extremely thin story. And it’s way too long, because otherwise we wouldn’t know that it’s “important.”
Anyway, Glass is mauled by a bear [and I don't know, I'm no frontiersman, but even I know that when you see two bear cubs and hear a huge beast growling that maybe you want to back off a bit]. He’s in very bad shape, and they have to carry him everywhere, which just can’t work for long, given the harshness of the terrain. Fitzgerald, Hawk and a naïve youngster volunteer to stay behind with him. The other guys leave, and soon Fitzgerald kills Hawk. He tells the boy that Indians are coming to attack, and they must leave Glass. The boy leaves Glass his canteen with an identifiable Hello Kitty sticker on it.
Well, as you know, because you know the whole arc of this movie from the trailer or merely hearing what the setup is, Glass crawls out of his grave and struggles for survival for the next few hours, until he makes it back to civilization and tries to get revenge on Fitzgerald. There’s a lot of grunting and groaning and doing gross things in order to survive [eating organs, sleeping nude in dead horses], but what there isn’t is character development or involvement.
With as much time as we spend with Glass, we never really get to know him. He remains a blank. We know he’s upset that his son was killed and he misses his wife, but even as I'm watching him to incredible things in order to survive, I don’t feel this overwhelming urge for life. I’m also not feeling like he’s having any kind of life-changing transformation from his experience, as we saw with Johnny Depp in the somewhat similar [and far superior] Dead Man. And I don’t have any sense that he’s developing a thirst for revenge, as we are supposed to feel at the end. It’s interesting enough to watch him do this, go there, eat that, slog through the other, meet this person, etc., but I felt almost no emotional involvement with his journey or his character. A sequence of seeing someone hung here [someone hanging from a tree, that is, not like, you know, someone HUNG], compared poorly with a similar sequence in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, which quite economically explained a whole world of old West insanity. This may be the danger of having very little dialogue, or, more likely, it’s the fault of the script and the lack of imagination of the director. And the loss of control over tone and subtlety that can happen when you place yourself at the mercy of the weather in the world’s wild places. But one gets the sense that Iñárritu felt that the scenery would do all the work.
SPOILERS > > >
Another thing I don’t feel is Glass’ thirst for revenge. I know he is upset that his son got killed, but that is never followed by “and I am going to get that sonofabitch.” I didn't get that he is driven by revenge. Maybe he’s not? It really didn’t seem like it, but then suddenly at the end he’s going after Fitzgerald with, you know, a vengeance. They have a knock-down, drag-out fight, and Glass is about to kill Fitzgerald, when he sees a group of Native Americans he has encountered earlier [and he knows they have a bit of a grudge], so he says something to the effect of “Revenge is for God to decide,” and he sends Fitzgerald downstream, to be killed by them. So the film makes it out like he renounces revenge and keeps his soul clean, but I don’t know: if you don’t actually kill your enemy, but you send him to a certain death, is that really completely innocent? If you’re ensuring their death but not actually inserting the knife, does that make you completely blameless? Not to me, but you sense that it works for the filmmakers, and we’re supposed to be all moved at Glass keeping his soul clean. Remember that quote about the director “doesn’t have much insight into the things he is supposedly educating us about?”
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It’s also long. It’s just under three hours and it really seems like it. But one senses that it’s long because they couldn’t bear to throw any of that hard-won footage out, and in order to show how very important it is. I wish the length had been used to get us to feel the momentousness of Glass’ journey. They could have easily cut an hour without harming the overall story.
If you want to watch good movies that explore this time period and setting, there is Jim Jarmusch’s aforementioned Dead Man, which is a very similar movie but with wit, humanity, emotional involvement and very welcome brevity. There’s also Ravenous, a horror-comedy [that’s not very funny] about cannibalism that shows the time and setting very vividly, has some good horror ideas [but is also quite wobbly and uneven], and more homoeroticism than you can shake a stick at. As for this film, all I feel for it is a dull anticipatory ache in my stomach for the moment it will win Best Picture.
If you want to.