Content warning for descriptions of sexual assault and racism. Also, spoilers.
I want to get this out of the way: this is a very beautiful and horrific movie in equal measures. Emmanuel Lubezki is one of the finest cinematographers working today, working alongside director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith to provide imagery that enthralls, horrifies, and dazzles…at least at the moment. Immediate, free-flowing, and yet attentive to detail, this is a movie that one would definitely want to watch in a movie theater (or, at least, see on Blu-Ray with one of those fancy 4K HDR TVs if you can afford one). However tough this movie was to make, or how expensive it was to produce, if one looks at it from a strictly technical angle they make it all look easy to be an artistic genius. Such a shame, then, that the movie is only just this: an ambitious sequence of images, light and sound that amounts to little more than a 2 hour and 45 minute long handjob to colonialism, Old West aesthetics, and patriarchal bullshit (though to be fair, the movie at least acknowledges that the Old West fucked over Native Americans very hard, albeit in ways that are so trite that I have to elaborate on them later).
This is a movie for the Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s kind of consumer: someone who needs to be assured over and over that what they’re consuming is, “real”, “pure”, and “natural”. Hence the hype machine about how difficult this movie was to make, similar to what greeted Richard Linklater’s otherwise pretty good effort, “Boyhood”. This movie is sold to the viewer in a pretty package that reads, “Don’t worry, moviegoer: you are seeing something profound unlike those dirty, dirty mainstream Superhero movies/retro-revivals, because we have been spilling the beans on how this movie was made with natural light and no green-screening. Consume, viewer, and benefit from watching Real Art.” And I’m not just talking about the advertising/articles that have been written about the movie before its release, I’m talking about how the movie as a whole approaches the viewer. Even during the running time, one can observe the gears turning very loudly to showcase the next sales pitch of Why This Movie Is Art, with Iñarritu’s emphasis on technique and precision coming with a caveat of making this feel less like a movie and more like a Super Bowl commercial for hiking gear. One would think that a story based on survival, during a tragic and horrifying chapter in American Colonialism, would have a pulse. It does not. The movie showcases a land that Iñarritu and company have conquered through sheer creative will, demonstrating their mastery of closeups, tracking shots and music but leaving a result that is as chilly as the snow Hugh Glass trudges through in his quest for revenge, left for dead after injuries from a bear attack/sickness. Oh, and his mixed race son Hawk (played in a limited, but endearing fashion by Forrest Goodluck) is killed by his bigoted partner John Fitzgerald (played in a menacing turn by Tom Hardy), so This Time It’s Personal.
What makes it even worse is that when the movie is JUST about Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to survive the wilderness, being cold is the movie’s thematic strong point, even if the character Hugh Glass is given little to no real complexity besides having a mixed race son and a dead Native American wife. Oh, yeah, that’s what I meant to address earlier: the movie’s way of tackling America’s genocidal history towards the Indigenous population is reductive garbage. It doesn’t address America’s history, instead it uses shortcuts like having Hugh Glass fuck one of the, “Good” Native Americans and raising a son with (and without) them. See also: heavy-handed symbolism involving skulls, an abandoned church, animals dead and alive, plus images of the “Good” Native American woman Hugh Glass fucked, sometimes floating (seriously), other times existing in sun-streaked flashback. This is a movie that has no problem showing the wounds Hugh Glass and company go through, nor their antagonist John Fitzgerald’s bigotry and brute strength, but when it comes to the natives, they are just portrayed as either savages, noble savages, or beings to be saved/nurtured/used by Hugh Glass himself.
One sequence that encapsulates this movie’s approach to horror, action and People Who Are Not Hugh Glass (or any of the other white characters for that matter) is the one towards the end of the movie where Hugh Glass, after being taken care of by a Arikara tribe warrior, finds said caretaker dead and hung from a tree. Hugh Glass finds some horses, but cannot just get one of the horses because…well, there is a a group of French traders nearby, who have taken a Pawnee woman hostage. One of the traders takes them to a secluded place with trees and rapes her. Hugh Glass gets behind this man, steals his gun and stops him, asking the woman to help him while she growls to the trader, “I will cut your balls off”. Hugh Glass then gets back to the horses, frees them so he can ride on one of them, and calls to the woman while chaos ensues. Two things are noticable here: one, the point of view is on Hugh Glass, so when the French trader is castrated, we only know so because we hear the man screaming in pain off screen (and then the camera pans to the man kneeling in agony). Two, despite Iñarritu and company’s meticulous mapping of this sequence, everything becomes chaotic when Hugh Glass frees the horses and shoots at the men chasing him…oh, and this is first and last time we see that woman. She doesn’t even get a sendoff or a, “Thank You”, she’s reduced to the same level of noise and fury that the horses and the pissed-off traders make. She is, ultimately, just a pretty stepping stone for Hugh Glass’ thirst for vengeance.
Oh, and that isn’t even the most irritating thing in this movie! Earlier in the movie Hugh Glass is told by the same Arikara warrior who helps him that, “Revenge is in the creator’s hands.” Guess what Hugh Glass does when he finally gets back to John Fitzgerald, the man who left him for dead and killed his son? Gets in a bloody fight with John, then REPEATS THE ARIKARA WARRIOR’S SPEECH ALMOST VERBATIM, tosses him down the river and lets him get finished off by the pissed of Natives who were going after Hugh Glass and company Because Reasons. Then they just let the guy go. Just like that. Finally, Hugh Glass trudges away, kneels down while bleeding to death and sees his dead wife standing across from him. Subtle.
You know, it’s actually kinda funny: I talked a lot of shit about how toxic, shallow and pretentious Iñarritu and company’s previous effort, “Birdman” is. Who could’ve guessed that the person and his crew trying to be sincere and Important this time would be just as grating? Turns out the only thing worse than obnoxious, toxic cynicism is air-headed sincerity combined with bravado. Two sides of the same coin, served to the viewer within a year of each other. Shame. Though, to give more credit where it is due, it’s definitely a better time than, “Birdman”.