Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Writers: Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter.
“Wow… Leonardo DiCaprio really wants to win an Oscar at all costs.” Those were the words that kept running through my head the entire time I was watching this two and a half hour movie. For years I have been following Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s career and been impressed by his style, the scope of his movies, and the work he has produced. Not all of it has been perfect, but it’s always a very interesting statement. From the globe spanning epic that was Babel, through more quiet dramas such as 21 Grams, and last year’s high-wire act of Birdman, there is always a clear point of view and justification to his films. DiCaprio has also been quite wise in his movie choices since gaining worldwide fame and status with the one-two punch that were Romeo + Juliet and Titanic, forgoing franchises and bombastic blockbusters for more artistic and daring work along with collaborations with some of the most well-regarded directors of his generation: Spielberg, Tarantino, Scorsese, Nolan, Eastwood, Mendes, Allen, Boyle, Cameron, Scott, the actor has worked with them all. One would expect that the meeting of these two men, one a visionary director, the other an actor with a knack of collaborating with only the best in the business, that the result would be a thrilling meeting of the minds that could only result in success.
I am sure that many will walk out of this film and be impressed. The story is epic, the action is pulse pounding, the stakes are high, the stories from behind the scenes are meant to be eaten up, and it has those magical words: “inspired by true events”. To those people who enjoyed and will enjoy this film I say ‘good for you’ but I am not one of them. What I saw when watching this movie was a harrowing, seemingly never ending, big budget torture-porn of a movie. This film had a gigantic budget, an all star cast and crew, the antagonists were nature, Native Americans, and the cruelty of man, but ultimately it left me with the same reaction that watching a Saw movie leaves: emptiness and a feeling that I had been deeply punished but unable to figure out why or to what end.
Let’s start with the fact that those true events that inspired this film are barely true. Yes, there is a real life inspiration, but this film is based on a novel, itself based on a true life story. The only elements that this movie shares with its real life counterpart are the name of the protagonist, Hugh Glass, the fact that he was attacked by a bear, and that two men who had been charged to stay with him until he died left him before he actually succumbed. The real Hugh Glass made an incredible recovery and journeyed over the course of six weeks to safety. The incredible story and journey, along with the events that transpired over the course of the following years, apparently were not that tantalizing to the filmmakers, so instead we are treated to a punishing ordeal of Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Glass, battling Native Americans, bad French people, suffering in agony, and seeking full on revenge on those who left him behind and killed his Native American son Hawk (who doesn’t seem to have ever existed).
From the opening Arikara attack, through the way too long bear mauling, and a million other horrific ordeals, the movie unrelentingly punishes its protagonist and the audience. There is never the minimum amount of respite. The only pauses are for Glass’ dead Pawnee wife to appear to him in mystical dreams reminding him of some white man’s version of native spirituality.
Most of the film’s promotion is being driven by DiCaprio’s descriptions of how horrible filming was for him and how at least twenty times he feared for his life and safety, risking gangrene and frostbite in order to render the most realistic portrayal as possible. Production really did take place in freezing and inhumane conditions and the movie took months to complete. It was a tour de force in human suffering. I personally don’t understand the appeal or purpose on focusing on these elements. The job of filmmakers and actors are to make us believe that the end product rings true, but we never (or at least never should) expect the actors to actually walk in the shoes of those they are portraying in order to gain authenticity. The craft of these people is to act, and they should be able to do so without forcing themselves to experience the same life experiences of those on screen. We didn’t expect Tom Cruise or Gary Sinise to chop off limbs in order to play amputees, we didn’t ask Charlize Theron or Jodie Foster to become actual prostitutes for cinematographic accuracy, I am wholly aware that Zoe Saldana is not an alien, regardless of how many times she plays one, be it green or blue. I would argue that all those actors more or less successfully did their jobs without “fully” committing to their roles, so I am left somewhat unimpressed with DiCaprio needing to experience freezing temperatures and eating raw bison meat in spite of him being a vegan in real life in order to turn in this performance.
I guess that the only consolation is that making this film was worse for him than it was for me to sit through it. It’s grand and majestic, but, like the actual raw bison liver the actor had to consume in one scene, it left a bad flavor in my mouth.