Maybe the greatest cinematography since Lawrence of Arabia.
That's the only good thing I can say about this movie, though even it has a problem I will get to. ***Beware of spoilers--though a reasonably aware person should know what to expect from this film plotwise just watching the trailers.***
Artists tell stories. And great stories are told and retold many times and can and should be adapted in the telling. Yet, any change should serve some purpose to the story or to a larger theme the story is drawing our attention to.
Hugh Glass and his story are an authentic part of the American West, though quickly turned into folk tale and legend. Jim Bridger became one of the great mountain men, explorers, and entrepreneurs in his own right. I encountered Hugh Glass' story in the masterful A Cycle of the West by Nebraska poet laureate John G. Neihardt, a volume that should be in the canon of American literature read by every well-educated person.
The real Hugh Glass story is one of forgiveness overcoming violence and revenge. The genuine story is both an unconventional Western and true, which is one reason the story is so subversive of our romanticized notions of the West.
Inarritu has chosen to tell a different story--a very conventional revenge narrative. In fact, so conventional, that I quickly became bored by the film and wondered why I needed to wait hours more for a bloody death scene (I actually was checking the time to see how much longer I had to endure). This film ratchets up our romanticized notions of the West and employs every stereotype and trope. Whereas the real story reminds us that our romanticized notions are inauthentic. This strange choice of a conventional plot also led to thematic decision I greatly disliked.
I was, in fact, disgusted by the film. Not its violence, but the filmmakers' decision to create a hypermasculine story.
First, they manufactured a half-Pawnee son. Why? They seem to have chosen to do so in order to make the revenge all that more potent and guarantee a violent conclusion.
They've also chosen to set the film in mountainous winter landscapes instead of on the Great Plains where the events occurred (Glass encountered Fitzgerald north of Omaha at Fort Atkinson). This choice, which leads to the stunningly beautiful cinematography, also seems to be about ratcheting up the hyper-masculinity. Crawling across the rolling hills and grassy meadows of the Plains would seem to be not effort enough for these filmmakers. They need to manufacture sturm und drang.
Then they add repeated and unnecessary sequences of sadistic tortures of Hugh Glass. Was the story of bear mauling, betrayal, and survival by crawling not powerful enough?
As told by John Neihardt, the story is rooted in the friendship between Glass and Bridger, a friendship completely lacking in the film (because of the manufactured son?). Glass feels betrayed by a friend and the anger and bitterness motivates his crawl, but evaporates when he finally meets up with Bridger again.
Also, the Neihardt version reveals a homoerotic possibility to the relationship between Glass and Bridger. We know from the historical record that the men who blazed trails in the West often engaged in same-sex relations, though the films and television shows often unqueer these stories.
Which they've done again. This time in service to a hypermasculinity that can't tell a story of friendship, same-sex love, or forgiveness. That would be a good story. An unconventional Western film with unexpected plot developments. And, very likely, also a true story.
So, if this film wins the Academy Award for Best Picture, then I will be even more angry for Brokeback Mountain lost. Clearly the lesson for filmmakers is that they should purge the queer elements of the great stories.
Read more about the Neihardt story here.
And an article that also disliked the film for its refusal to tell the genuine story.