Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. This one was slightly on my radar, from my general interest in DiCaprio and Hardy and Iñárritu, but frankly, I was going to wait until it came out on DVD. What tipped the scales for me was the fact that, with remarkable consistency, all of the word of mouth I got from friends said the same thing: It’s good, not great, but it looks amazing—if you’re going to see it, see it on the big screen. And you know what? That was basically a premonition of my review: this movie is good, not great, but it looks fantastic so see it in theatres. Now that I say that, and it’s impossible to see it except on DVD (or Blu Ray), I wouldn’t say that you shouldn’t bother watching it. It’s still a really enjoyable film, and very beautiful, but please don’t watch it on your iPad or anything.
As for the film itself, I’m tempted to say it’s pretty samey—another “tale of retribution” and regeneration through the healing and redemptive power of the wilderness, shot through with European romanticizing and fetishizing the holy one-ness of Aboriginal culture. You know—THAT old chestnut. As far as that goes, though, I can confidently say that this is a much better film than Dances With Wolves or Last of the Mohicans, both of which I thought were kind of awful (a bit worse on the cultural fetishization, but a lot worse on the overall quality of narrative and characterization). And really, it’s good that this film isn’t as offensive and outright ridiculous about that shit as the films from the 90’s because, you know, progress…But anyway, this film’s strength is not really its cultural politics. Like the films mentioned above, and especially like Terence Malick’s The New World, the film is doing an apparently progressive turn in showing us that white culture came to North America not to create something beautiful and glorious, but something dirty, diseased and awful, and in that sense, this film comes almost as close to showing us the visceral creepiness and brutality of all of that as Malick’s film with its disease-infested Jamestown with the bodies piling higher and higher. But, like all those other films, this is still a film about white Americans doing what white Americans gotta do, in a film with all white Americans in the lead roles (except where they’re played by white non-Americans). As a revenge story, the film has much more time to spend on the simplistic compulsion of the protagonist to wreak his holy and just revenge, than it does questioning the project of colonial mercantilism. Sure, the French look pretty awful, and sure, the bad guy (Tom Hardy) looks pretty awful (partly because of the physical dismemberment he shows, which by the way, is the due to an attempted scalping from an Aboriginal tribe, but ANYWAY), but the film has not even a fraction of the critical gaze towards the whole, sanctified and romanticized project of western expansion as recent post-westerns like Meek’s Cutoff, or Tommy Lee Jones’s latest The Homesman, or Tommy’s pal Cormac McCarthy’s work (and, of course, even these have nary a peep coming from the mouths of Aboriginal characters).
Now, I’m open to the argument that maybe it’s not each individual film’s responsibility to single-handedly solve the problem of settler colonialism in North America, and to single-handedly, with a single film, solve the problem of the representation of Aboriginals in cinema. It’s probably impossible for one film to do that anyway. But I would say that, in producing another story of white people duking it out for vindication/absolution/retribution (here it comes again…redemption!) in the beautiful scenery of 19th century America (or in this case, the beautiful scenery of western Canada, but regardless), where Aboriginal culture exists purely to show us how noble and pure and connected to nature the white protagonist is, this film is just kind of kicking the can further down the road.
For all this, yes it’s a good film, yes it’s well done, yes there’s good acting, yes there’s beautiful scenery, yes there is a lot of impressive feats of filmmaking for film nerds, lots of interesting behind the scenes stories of shooting extensively during magic hour, on snow-covered mountains, with little 4×4 tractors hauling the film gear up and down mountain passes, etc. Yes, Tom Hardy has yet another distinctive accent and quirky mannerisms for his character. Yes, Leo ate a fucking buffalo liver. So yes, it’s all very impressive from a technical standpoint. But I think that’s what my word of mouth reports were trying to convey to me: it’s fine, it’s good, but you should definitely see it in theatres.
(P.S. For all the hype on the bear sequence, I was pretty let down that it was, surprise surprise, a fucking CGI bear. Of course I didn’t expect Leo to actually be mauled by a bear, but I remember a more thrilling and believable bear sequence in another Alberta-filmed masculine redemption story in the wilderness, the quickly forgotten but totally legit Baldwin/Hopkins vehicle The Edge, featuring state-of-the-art bear training technology of the 90’s, and guess what—a real bear. FYI.)