Back in 1971, I saw the Richard Harris, John Huston film “Man in the Wilderness“. I was a Boy Scout at the time and while not an expert woodsman, I always thought that I might have what it takes to get through an experience like the one portrayed in the film. That is the fantasy of youth, that we are as great as we might aspire to be. As I watched what is essentially a remake of that film, forty-five years later, I have no illusions. If this were me, I would die. It would be painful and the cold would drive me mad before actually doing me in. The makers of the current film pile on so many obstacles that I’m not sure anyone could visualize themselves in the role that Leonardo DiCaprio plays. As a result, the movie plays less like an adventure film and more like an endurance test. It is well made and has some fantastic sequences but there is a lot to get through and some of it will test your patience.
A trapper, abandoned by his party after being mortally injured, would naturally feel resentment and seek revenge on those who turned their back on him. This story is more direct in building a revenge theme specific to a particular individual than was the case in the 1971 version of the tale. There is also a theme of forgiveness and redemption that follows the character of Hugh Glass. His struggle in punctuated with spiritual messages from past misdeeds as well as visions of his future. The Indians that are tracking him may be profiting from the raid they conduct on his companions but there is another purpose as well, one that mirrors the story of our abandoned frontiersman. It sometimes feels like an awkward attempt to add some balance to the story, but it can occasionally be confusing as well.
I’m inclined to say that the film is centered around three action segments that will dazzle the audience and build immense tension. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie involve a violent attack on a group and there are some harsh images that will sometimes be disconcerting. It is staged in a manner that feels very natural and accurate, which makes it even more ominous as it plays out. There is a rumor going around that at Academy Screenings of the film, many older members of the body have walked out in disgust at the level of violence depicted. I don’t think it compares the “Saving Private Ryan” levels but it does take one’s breath to imagine the intensity of fear that would accompany this event. A short while later is the visual moment that will be the signature image from the film, an attack by a grizzly on the lead character, which leaves him in his near dead condition. Finally, there is a confrontation at the end of the film that quenches the thirst for revenge but also stops short of accepting the consequences of that action. It is a choice that fits in with some of the spiritual elements that the movie has advanced, but it feels like a cliche.
Cliches may be the one weakness of the film. The villain of the piece is a cliche racist that eary on we might understand, but as the story develops we have less and less reason to hope for any resolution other than his annihilation. The wilderness sequences are spectacular to look at but there are so many times when an amazing idea is followed up with an obvious moment. I think I first saw an animal used the way Han uses his tauntan in the “Empire Strikes Back” in an old Robert Taylor movie. After a very creative action moment, the movie inserts a sequence much like this for no particular reason except that it is a survival film and this is one of the survival cliches that has been around a long time. Every chase has a component to it that is fresh and then a moment that is cliched. It is all shot so beautifully that you may not care, but because the pace of the film is so leisurely, I frequently found time to think about things like this. The film is almost two and a half hours long and in many places it feels that way. A little economy of storytelling would make this picture more effective, but that is not to say what we got was a disappointment, it was just not the tension filled action piece that is sold to us. There is a lot of navel gazing at times and it slows down the film enough to notice that you are watching a film.
DiCaprio is fine in the movie although I did not find his performance to be the one that will finally get him his Oscar. In fact, at one point, I had to knock myself out of an internal dialogue because Leo was repeating a moment from “The Wolf of Wall Street” only this time it was for dramatic purposes rather than comedic ones. That is not the kind of thing you want in your head while you are watching an intense drama like this. Alejandro González Iñárritu makes the story visually interesting in the same way he accomplished so much in last year’s “Birdman”, but it is a little noticeable at times, also reflecting a self awareness that seems out of place. This is an excellent film and I may just be reacting to my expectations, but it did not feel as special as it has been hyped as. The story is grim with only one moment of lightness in the whole 156 minutes, and that may be one of the missing pieces for me. I need to care about the character a lot more and he is never given any personality only a mantle of spirituality that he wears like a mantle of honor, but without much clarity.