Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a guide for a bunch of trappers earning ‘their living’ selling the furs they ‘harvest’ along the Missouri river in the earlier 1820’s. Before you realise it the film puts you in the middle of an attack by the local Arikara Native American tribe that has their minds set on the pelts as well.
In an impressive long single steadycam shot lasting for the entire battle from among the trees till the retreat on the boat (at least for those who were not slaughtered) director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his DoP Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki set out to prove that the technical bravoura they were able to pull off in an around a theater on Broadway for Birdman (2014) they can also accomplish in the wilderness in harsh conditions.
Glass manages to convince Henry (Domhall Gleeson, Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and has a father called Brendan) the leader of the troop they stand a better chance outrunning the Arikara by leaving the boat and return to their fort on foot.
A little later Hugh gets attacked by a bear who’s protecting his cubs and is severley wounded. He’s being stitched up as good as you might expect under the circumstances but it’s evident to everybody Glass will not survive the injuries he’s sustained. Henry offers money to several volunteers to stay with Glass untill he dies and give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald (the omni-present Tom Hardy), Bridger and Hawk (Glass’s half-native son) stay behind.
Fitzgerald is more interested in the money than upholding his promise and starts his manoeuvres, determined to leave Glass behind for dead, as for him the entire operation is too risky and useless. However, there’s more life left in him than Fitzgerald expected and Glass will be looking for revenge.
The incredible real life survival story of Hugh Glass already resulted in an excellent film called Man in the Wilderness starring Richard Harris and John Huston, directed by Richard C. Sarafian, mostly known for Vanishing Point, both released in 1971. In case you’re interested I can recommend the french DVD edition by Wild Side Video (amazon.fr Richard-Sarafian Box Man in the wilderness + The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing) that also includes Sarafian’s The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973) starring Burt Reynolds.
This version is largely based the book by Michael Punke. Considering the previous credits of screenwriter Mark L. Smith that consists entirely of genre movies, this was initially probably conceived as a straightforward revenge flick. Once Iñárritu came aboard he appears to have introduced some mystical elements to the original source material. The subplot involving Glass’s son Hawk and the dreamsequences involving Glass’s Native American wife were added as the real life Hugh Glass was not married at that point of his life. Especially the scene set in the ruins of a church full of icon murals and a cast bronze bell swinging on it’s own while only half of the archway is still intact is clearly referencing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966-69). You can spot plenty of homages to Tarkovsky in the film. I’ve singled out the ‘bird coming out of a chest’ scene which besides Tarkovsky holds a Alejandro Jodorowsky reference as well. Could even have included 2 clips from Jodorowsky’s Fando y Lis (1968) which also features two Egyptian culture inspired ‘soul leaving the body’ scenes.
From a technical point of view the film is flawless. Although most of the stories surrounding this production are probably exaggerated to say the least (no CGI: yeah right, Leo slept in a real animal carcasse: sure) the dedication of the entire cast and crew most have been absolute : the excellent production design by Jack Fisk, the wonderful use of (original and hard to reach) locations, the spectactular photography by Lubezki, … .
The mystical elements (not my favorite part of the film) and the extremely violent and rough tone of the film may catch audiences expecting a more straightforward adventurous approach off guard.
Impressive (absolutely), violent (definitely) and somewhat pretentious (afraid so).