The movie is essentially a Revenge Western (much like the Hateful Eight) but it takes place in the 1820s and the action occurs in the far Northern section of the Missouri River of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase of the United States (this is what I understand from the movie, I haven't read the book, but I always like to plug a book if I can). The Native American Tribes, who run part of the plot (how nice is that? The Others have their own cares and concerns that are only periphally influenced or determined by the White Guys in this movie), are the Pawnees (DiCaprio speaks Pawnee in the movie) and the Arikara (whom I had never heard of. I kept thinking that they were talking about the Crees and the Crees are really Far North as in Northern Canada).
Leonardo DiCaprio's character is named Hugh Glass and he and his son (his wife was Pawnee and was killed by some US soldiers) work as hunters for a Fur Trading Company. Fur Trading was big business in Northern America at one time. The Astors, much like the present day Kochs, made their fortune on exploiting and ruining their environment and their fellow Americans. Then the Astors died in the Titanic sinking where nature swallowed them and Leo, as Jack, down into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean which might be where Hell is located. Who knows?
I was wondering about the hunting required for trappers. Don't they eat the meat of the animals that they kill and skin? There are some wonderful full screen, all-encompassing continuous dolly shots of the trappers' camp, and the skinned and bloody carcasses of their victims lie around on the ground and on poles where the skinning is done. Anyway Hugh and his son, Hawk, have got an Elk for dinner when they hear gun shots that they shouldn't have heard and come running onto a scene of the trappers' camp where the hunted animals aren't the only mutilated and murdered victims of mankind. A Pawnee hunting party has invaded the trappers' camp and are busy doing their own killing and mutilating of the trappers whose bodies are added to those of their animal victims. The Pawnee Party steals the animal skins and furs from the American trappers (much like the trappers stole the skins and furs of their animal victims from them) to trade with another trapping party of Frenchmen to buy horses and information on the Pawnee leader's daughter who has been kidnapped by two white men. The daughter's name is Powaqa and she is the instrument of revenge for Hugh Glass at the end of the movie, and she is another innocent like Glass' son Hawk and the animals and the forlorn Pawnee with the spotted horse whose family and tribe was murdered by the Sioux. Everybody in this movie is killing everybody else. It is like HI's dream in Raising Arizona where he wonders where do all the innocents go for protection from evil and criminals and killing nature? Utah?
And a note to the Gun Fetishers, all the men in this film have guns and most of them end up killed by their enemies who also have guns. So much for that argument.
Some of the American trappers get away from the Pawnee Raid with some of their furs and head to the American trapper fort which flies the flag with fewer stars. Hugh and his son are among the fortunate ones, but while hunting food and scouting for the fleeing party, Hugh comes across a Mama Grizzly Bear with two cubs. Mama Grizzly (not Sarah Palin) goes after Hugh to protect her cubs and rips him some new assholes in parts of his body where he doesn't need any assholes, just one will do fine. Hugh manages to kill her but he is almost done for himself. And those cubs? Orphans. We will see the pink and white carcass of one of the skinned bear cubs in the fleeing trappers' camp, just as we will see the dead body of Hugh's son Hawk buried in the white snow with some pink snow around him after one of the trappers, who elected to stay with Hugh and his son for money until Hugh died of his grevious bear wounds, kills Hawk for being an inconvenience.
Hugh doesn't die of his wounds and holes (we can see through one of them in his back) and rises up from his shallow grave to hunt down Fitzgerald and Bridger who were the two trappers who didn't take care of him until he died. Fitzgerald is the one who took care of Glass' son, Hawk. Hugh joins the pack of avengers wearing his Mama Grizzly Bear skin and claws (see, he becomes her). The avengers are Hugh, the Pawnees looking for Powaqa, the trapper leader who is looking for his stolen money, amongst others. Everybody in this movie has a grudge. Even Powaqa gets her revenge.
Ińárritu directed the movie, and shares screenwriter's credit, and shows his technical mastery of the medium. He is Mexican and Mexico has contributed some very fine directors to Hollywood lately. Cuarón directed Gravity which was up for awards in 2013. And then there is Del Toro who has the technical skills but also has more heart and horror in his work. He can do fairy tales and scary stories just like one of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens.
The trappers' massacre that opens the movie is done in long un-interruped takes that go from distant establishing full shots of the actions to medium shots to murderous wrestling close-ups back to long shots to close-up to medium shots without a cut to allow the cameras to refocus or the actors and assistant directors to re-set the action and the shots. It is breath-taking both in its mastery of cinematography and anxiety of watching people being murdered and mutilated. Emmanuel Lubezki is the cinematographer and he is Mexican too, he also did Gravity for Cuarón.
It is not possible to deep focus using color in a film (see Citizen Kane for some magnificent black and white focus and remember it was done before WWII with that technology and watch another master, Orson Wells and his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, slide their camera from long to medium to close-ups and back again without a cut), but Lubezki does his best. In the capture above, you can almost believe that you are seeing deep focus, this works better as the film moves. And Ińárritu is a director who keeps his shots filled with information and images that flash on the viewer's subconscious and pay off later in the movie. Bridger is in the foreground and he is menanced and controlled by Fitzgerald in the background. And then there are those trees, in the movie they are the souls of beloved ones for Hugh and his family and symbolize integrity, but they interfere with the integrity and sight for the trappers and the avengers.
In the Gif, you can see the scope of the vision that Ińárritu and Lubezki give the viewer. Bridger's threatening gun is in close-up and the medium shot of Fitzgerald's face and reaction directs you to the distant background of beautiful but indifferent Nature. Then in the long shot, there is that solitary tree that comes up behind Fitzgerald. Hugh is that solitary tree seeking his revenge and gaining on Fitzgerald. The scenery is never scenery in this movie, it is the director as narrator's commentary on the characters and the action. Every frame is telling the story.
A Q&A discussion of the film as shot in color and in natural light is here at dawnybee's LJ.
Lubezki and Ińárritu deserve their nominations for cinematography and direction for the film. If they win, I won't quibble. However the film is too long. I think that the director and editor fell in love with all their lovely long shots and just wanted to make the film as long as the shots.
As for Leo and the Oscar, he ain't Liev Shreiber, but he did make me believe that he was a father and had a son whom he loved. The Party Boy had me convinced that Family meant everything to him. I think that Leo does his best work when he plays honest and straight forward characters. He can convince a viewer of his worthiness with a pure simplicity that few actors, other than Tom Hanks, can deliver. That is a rare quality that should be more valued in a movie. Leo's villians, and I am thinking of Django Unchained among others, are too manufactured and he has to work too hard to play them and it shows.
Recommended but take a break or two while you are watching this one. And really look at what is going on background, foreground, and mud wallowing.