Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro González Iñárritu; based on the novel by Michael Punke
Starring Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Pulter
After being ambushed by Native Americans, explorer Hugh Glass guides a group of pelt hunters through inhospitable lands back to their fort. But when he is badly mauled by a bear, captain Andrew Henry feels that Glass has no chance of survival and decides to leave him behind with three of his men (one of them is Hawk, Glass’ half native son). Henry instructs them to stay with him until his death and give him proper burial. One of the three, Fitzgerald, decides to shorten Glass’ agony, but ends up killing Hawk in the process. As his other comrade comes back, Fitzgerald lies to him and convinces him that Glass is dead and to go back to the fort and collect their ransom. Against all odds, Hugh Glass survives and begins an epic journey to return to the fort and vindicate the death of his son…
This adventure movie is a tour de force (firstly physical) for Leonardo Di Caprio, and it is filled with meditative glances that seem to echo Malick (without Malick’s profoundly metaphysical point of view). It has the signature of Mexican director Iñárritu, who won an Oscar for Birdman last year. While this story is based on a novel, it also moves away from it.
A forceful and violent nature (personified, for example, by the bear that defends her cubs by brutally attacking Glass) dominates the majestic images that Iñárritu shot between Canada and Argentina. The Mexican director created a world of epic wildness, where a “good” hero (he was married to a Native American woman and, after her violent death in the hands of soldiers, he brings with him their half native son, and defends his life and honor against everyone) faces numerous challenges, fueled by his desire for vengeance and an unquenchable survival instinct that comes from that very nature that wants to kill him.
The historical tableau (sprinkled with dream images, which take Glass back to the idyllic past of his marriage, but also the violent loss of his wife) is majestic. Here, several characters (among them, a Native American tribe looking for a kidnapped young woman) cross paths, randomly or purposely, but they never quite help the audience understand the historical context of the piece; instead they increase the sense of dread and hardship that the protagonist suffers.
Di Caprio completely embodies the sufferings of his character, not through words (he is alone and mainly unable to talk, given his wounds), but through the pained expressions of his face and the erratic sound of his breathing. He crawls, limps, then slowly walks, like a corpse coming out of a tomb (and quite literally he is), or a vampire or zombie (the title of the movie echoes the feeling). He is motivated by one purpose only – revenge — once exhausted, there seems to be nothing else left. As Glass gains strength, he faces almost impossible challenges. Yet the audience is not immediately emotionally engaged in his human journey, as there seems to be an emphasis on his physical trial without any equivalent insight into his most profound psychology.
It is not enough to be given memories and “visions” (we have not spent enough time in the relationship between father and son to see Hawk’s murder as more than a catalyst for revenge) to compensate a general lack of pathos. Even the predictable death of the villain arrives at the end of a journey that remains a survival marathon (with scenes that are so brutal that they end up desensitizing the audience). The virtuoso directing of Iñárritu and the stunning cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki turns the movie into a masterful symphony on the tenacity of man. What a pity that it never quite reaches our hearts.
Problematic elements: several extremely violent scenes.
Luisa Cotta Ramosino is an Italian television writer and creative producer; she is also a regular contributor to the website Sentieri del cinema and Scegliere un film, an annual collection of film reviews.