Three times I made the attempt to watch this movie and finally it worked out this week. First it was a timing conflict. Then I became sick literally the day I wanted to go see it. But two days ago I finally made it. Sounds like the odyssey Mr. DiCaprio’s character went through in this film! Well, maybe not exactly.
First of all let’s go into the contents of this film a little. The movie is set in the early 1820s, when brave men embarked onto the conquest of the western (what we now call) United States of America. These men were so called ‘frontiersmen’ or ‘trappers’. People who tried to make a living by exploring the wilderness of a then unknown part of the land. In the case of the movie these men were trading fur and pelts that were quite the commodity back then. The french had a hand in that as well and were a big competitor in that field.
The movie sets its tone very early on within the first 10 minutes. We meet Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-blood son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) tracking down an animal. We immediately understand that these guys know what they’re doing. In the meantime we get a look at their camp of trappers and get introduced to John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). When out of nowhere an ambush by native americans starts. This scene in particular is shot with very very few (if at all) cuts/edits. While we watch the brutality unfold and chaos break loose, Glass and his son arrive back in the camp, right when the battle is raging. We also get a glimpse of how the character of John Fitzgerald is ticking. Throughout this beautifully executed scene the audience gets an idea of how brutal battles like these must have been. The camp gets overrun while a small group of trappers manages to board a small boat and flee. They took everything they could with them and as soon as they decide to go on land, they hide the furs and pelts, they managed to grab when the ambush happened. There we get a great scene with Fitzgerald that draws out his character a little more. Up to that point we also learned more about the background of Glass and Hawk. The group trusts him and while we don’t get to see how Glass earned their trust, it is very clear that this group of men respects his suggestions and knowledge of the land. Only Fitzgerald seems to question Glass quite a bit. Glass decides to go scout ahead the area since he knows this region of the land very well. Then this (now famous) bear attack sequence happens. This is quite a vicious part. The brutality of nature or the message that nature doesn’t give a damn about who we are and what we do… if it gets the chance, it will destroy us. Glass barely survives the attack and the group decides to take him with them on a makeshift stretcher. Again we see how Fitzgerald is kind of opposing that idea and it’s understandable from his point of view. Glass was barely alive at that point. Captain Henry insists of taking Glass with them. In the meantime we learn that the earlier ambush wasn’t just random. Natives called The Arikara are looking for their Chief’s daughter, that was kidnapped. Which builds a nice dynamic throughout the movie since they’re never far behind of our hero. Even if our group of trappers didn’t actually kidnap that woman. With glass on a stretcher, and the terrain becoming more and more difficult, the group gets to a point where they consider leaving Glass behind. Fitzgerald is all for that and again it’s relatable. The party decides to leave Glass behind. The Captain offers a payment raise for 2 people that are willing to stay with Glass and give him a proper burial, should he die. Fitzgerald and a young man named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) decide to stay behind with Glass and Hawk. While the main group tries to find a way through the mountains, which turns out difficult without Glass’s guidance. While Fitzgerald and Bridger practically wait for Glass to die. Then some bad stuff happens and the movie turns into one of the finest revenge movies ever made.
Enough about the story and more about the film itself. To make it short, I really enjoyed this movie. It kept me engaged throughout its 2 1/2 hours runtime and I never felt bored. Maybe the Oscars did cloud my judgement a little bit though. Especially in regards to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. While I do agree that his performance is really good, and something different from what we know him doing, I’m not with the general hype that he definitely had to get his first Oscar for that. I would have loved seeing him get one for his Django Unchained performance. I found Tom Hardy’s character much more interesting in comparison. He at least got an Oscar nomination for supporting role as well. And while awards are always a thing to argue about, I would have probably nominated him aside DiCaprio for Leading Role. We do see DiCaprio’s character go through hell and what he does makes you really feel for the character. But from an acting standpoint I found Tom Hardy more interesting. Yes, DiCaprio had to do a lot communication through facial expressions alone and he does that great here! But the character of Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald had some nice facettes as well. You could argue that he did nothing wrong. He didn’t have the best life and (like he says in the film) just tries to survive in a rather brutal environment. I can’t hold it against him when he’s looking out for himself. Of course the movie has a couple of scenes that clearly position Fitzgerald on the negative side of the spectrum. And that’s good because we certainly need a bad guy. But more often than not it’s the bad guy character that is more interesting than the good guy.
On the technical side of things it is a through and through admirable job they did with this film. The gritty realism gave weight to even the smallest things. A lot of face close ups that make you see a little bit of what’s going on in the characters heads. Great acting through the bench. I really enjoyed Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter too. The camera and reduced use of cuts and edits made this film flow very well. Especially the camera and lighting work is remarkable. Natural lighting all the way. CGI only when there was no other choice. The colorgrading may have been a little too much here and there but that’s a nitpick.
When the movie is over and you had a minute to reflect you might end up asking yourself what the message is. Revenge is the strongest force in the universe? Well, that may be the ultimate take away from this film. And I’m sure you can agree that it’s not really a good message to take away from this film or any film.
So what I did was to watch “A World Unseen”, a 45min documentary about the movie. It was released pretty much at the same time the movie came out. It has some great images too and talks about what ideas and influences fuel the movie. And the film made a little more sense after seeing that. The movie references a lot of things that relate to the world we live in now. It shows how early stages of capitalism started to take its toll on the environment and the people of the time. How greed can transform people into monsters. Even without their own fault. It’s the world we live in that transforms and shapes us. The movie talks about a lot of things that aren’t visible at first glance and that’s something I can only applaud for. We also get some nice interviews with the native american actors from the film and their views on history and what their world has become. “A World Unseen” is very insightful and a clear recommendation to round up the experience from the movie itself.
If you get a chance to see this film on the big screen. Take it. The images alone are worth it.
A clear recommendation.