I didn’t even know that this was a biographical movie until after watching it. But you’d never guess from the movie itself. So the basic gist of it is that Leonardo DiCaprio fights tooth and nail to finally win that Oscar. To wit he has to stay alive against all odds. So it’s again basically Cast Away but this time during the time when Native Americans got killed a lot and with the added bonus of actually being based on real life, because that usually works really well for the Oscars.
What doesn’t work well for me is that the movie puts the main character in so much harms way that at certain points it became impossible for me to suspend my disbelief at the whole thing. He manages to brush off so many injuries in such a short amount of time that it’s absolutely ludicrous how he manages to save himself and get the revenge that motivated him. I find it hard to believe that the real Hugh Glass faced such insurmountable odds and the quick look I had at his actual biography reveals that the movie takes tons of liberties with the material for more or less dramatic purposes.
But while it adapts an interesting real story into a more homogenized, cinematic form, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy myself. I don’t think it’s any sort of landmark masterpiece or even all that great, but I was entertained and it’s one of those rare occurrences of a movie actually getting better as it goes along. The specific problems I had at the beginning however don’t stem from its narrative. It has to do with the actual filmmaking.
See, this movie was made by Alejandro Iñárritu, the guy who likes to play with very long takes. Something he has in common with his fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. And the gimmickry shows, because for these types of shots, if you quickly want to change from one image to another, you have to move the camera really quickly. Coupled with the extremely wide-angle lenses and very fast shutter speed they filmed this to provide a heightened sense of realism, this means that panning the camera horizontally makes all the images basically unintelligible to the human eye. This is a common problem with cameras. Panning vertically poses little problems, but horizontal panning or even tracking leads to very choppy images that refuse to look good, which is why you usually don’t see them in movies. And believe me, I’ve experimented with that sort of thing myself and I was incredibly frustrated at how absolutely atrocious the results were. Fortunately this only affects the very beginning of the movie, the part where it has to actually hook you in with something.
The rest of the movie is far more conventionally shot and as a whole I have to say that for all slack I’m giving it for those beginner mistakes it makes, Iñárritu still managed to capture some captivating vistas for this film and overall it does differentiate itself markedly from other movies depicting the same era. It’s all shot in high contrast and almost overexposed images full of clouded skies, fog, snow storms and other stuff that make the few splotches of pure color stand out quite nicely.
If it seems like I’m focusing way too much on the visual aspect of the movie and not the narrative, there’s a reason for that. There isn’t really a lot going on here. It’s a basic tale of survival and revenge and it checks off all the points on the grand list of what to do with such a premise, only that it’s executed in a more Academy-pleasing way. There are a couple of scenes in this that are great, like the fight with the bear and the final confrontation, but some of the bits in between can get a little repetitive and seem to unnecessarily draw out the already considerable running time. Of note are the performances, all of which are quite good. While Leo does a great job in a role where he literally has to crawl in the dirt in order to convince those dried up old fucks in the Academy to finally give him his little statue, Tom Hardy manages to overshadow him with his great portrayal of the absolutely despicable antagonist. There are no surprises here for either of these characters and both actors portray them competently. But overall I’m just left with a feeling that I’ll probably never revisit this movie again because there isn’t really that much to it, unfortunately.