Before I begin this review, I wish to make one thing clear: Leonardo DiCaprio does not get sexually assaulted by a bear. At a time where we should be focusing on superb feats of filmmaking and brilliantly committed acting styles, we find ourselves asking an absurd question about the protagonist and seven-hundred-pound grizzly bear. I have no time for questions like this, so let’s talk sensible cinema instead.
After picking up four Academy awards for his previous picture, Birdman, director Alejandro Iñárritu tells the embellished true story of 19th-century frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), guiding a group of fur trappers across miles of hazardous country terrain. Among his company is Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and a heavily-scarred, devious trapper named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).
The men, and a few others trappers escape a vicious ambush attack by the Native American Arikara Indians and Glass leads them to relative safety along the Missouri river.
The scene itself reminded me of the Normandy invasion shots in Spielberg’s wartime epic, Saving Private Ryan (1998). Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki making marvellous use of his Steadicam, and not for the first (or last) time either.
On dry land again, Glass is a few hundred yards away from his party. He spots a couple of bear cubs. Then he hears a rustling sound behind him. It’s Mother Bear, and she isn’t interested in swiping pic-a-nic baskets. What follows is a heart-stopping few minutes of cinema in which Glass endures an horrific and brutal bear attack. After bandaging his wounds, the best they can, two men are detailed to stay and look after Glass: young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Tom Hardy’s malevolent Fitzgerald. The latter being paid a handsome $300.
This is pure immersive cinema. If its original intention is enclose you, then Iñárritu does the exact opposite: he exposes you to the elements. To the wind, the ice, the snow, even the bear. Lubezki’s camera work is so close it’s almost rude. His lens is like a seedy neighbour eyeing up someone’s wife. Intrusive, unflinching and unreservedly unapologetic. The bear scene isn’t a rape scene. It’s an example of pure power. Man versus nature. Although obviously CGI, you wouldn’t think so at all. So real, it seems, that the bear’s breath fogs up the lens.
This sense of realism is made more apparent by how difficult the film was to make. You have no doubt read the stories that have plagued production: the perishing cold, in and out of frozen rivers, Iñárritu’s refusal to shoot anything without natural light and the cross-country tramps to remote locations off the beaten track. Yet, for all this, the ends more than justify the means.
The script is sparse, with DiCaprio using his body language, eyes and facial muscles to superb effect. Having been Oscar-nominated three times previously, one does wonder if this is to be his year. Certainly, he deserves an Oscar for Best Actor…but since when has being the best actually meant anything at the Oscars?