Director/co-screenwriter/co-producer Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) and his crew create an unmistakably masterful film with a stellar cast pushed to their physical limits, but a few of the musical, sound and filmmaking techniques unfortunately jar the audience away from a perfect, escapist plot set during frontier land/settlement times in the 1880s.
Based in part on the novel by Michael Punke, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, the leading guide on a fur trading expedition accompanied by Captain Andrew Henry from the military, played by Domhnall Gleeson, and John Fitzgerald played by Tom Hardy. DiCaprio and Hardy grip the audiences in their Oscar® nominated roles as their expedition leadership power struggles and growing rivalry anchors the film. “Stop talking like you know what you’re talking about,” a man says to Fitzgerald. Hardy definitely gets the lion’s share of the dialogue and his impressive delivery and accent create a very memorable antagonistic character. Glass wisely guides the group while understanding important dynamics, local Native American tactics and other amazing survival skills. “My place is on smart end of this rifle,” says Glass as he quickly defusing a possible confrontation.
The amazing supporting cast including Will Poulter (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Maze Runner) who’s aptly named Bridger. He connects vital information among some dishonorable actions to characters who then embark on paths of redemption and punishment. The young Bridger’s conscious comes through as he questions suspicious action among the expedition party, which must conquer stark challenges. Actions involving selfish motives and acts of kindness play throughout the 156-minute plot.
The Oscar worthy Native American character cast includes Forrest Goodluck who plays Hugh’s son Hawk. He conveys so much in a short amount of time as does Duane Howard as Pawnee group leader Elk Dog who is searching for Powaqa, played by Melaw Nakehk’o. Arthur RedCloud also has a key role as Hikuc who provides amazing support (for audience and characters), authentic survivalist skills, and touches of humor and poignant humanity. The Pawnee and Arikara Native American languages are prominently features in this film.
This Western adventure/thriller simply amazes besides some filmmaking style choices (e.g. fogging/blood spatter on the camera lenses) and instrument choices in the musical score that literally jolted me out of my escapist mode during the film. These instrument choices did not match the time of the film, so it was an unpleasant, but minor distraction. Also, the makeup on Glass’ skin could have been blended much better in a sequence where he awakes in an outside shelter.
The plot, also co-written by Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) contains minimal dialogue as the actions speak for themselves. Audiences feel tension, but the amazing environments can put them in unmistakable awe. This approach works well and increases the impact of important sequences.
The physical endurance of the cast and crew boggles the mind. The cast use authentic firearms, survivalist skills, and build fires plus they speak multiple languages. The extensive filming locations included Canada (including Alberta & British Columbia), U.S. (including Arizona and Montana), Mexico and Argentina.
Iñárritu and his crew create fluid action and unique point-of-view shots among the stellar locations. The low POV and character tracking shots are particularly effective during the beginning battle scene. They follow with underwater shots, flashback/fantasy sequences, and graphic match transitions (e.g. fog/breath/pipe smoke). The lighting also impresses with the naturally light sequences (e.g. centered vertical camera shots looking at the tree tops, a wide pass between two huge mountains, etc.) from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) as well as characters like in one search sequence in a forest where riders with torches look like candles moving among the trees.
The incredible sound definitely has rhythm to it and the musical composers Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto create some memorable work. The pounding drum sounds introduced at the beginning are particularly memorable and continue throughout. The timing of certain musical score movement provide an emotional uplift just at the right time.
This amazing film reaches a high level with the seemless, spectacular special effects from Industrial Light & Magic (a.k.a. ILM). Cannot wait to check out the home video bonus features describing this process, which was also Oscar nominated. Highly recommended (***1/2 out of four stars) and rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.
Copyright © Michael Siebenaler