While the term Oscar-bait gets thrown around a lot with something like this or Alejandro G. Iñárritu's last feature Birdman, it raises a lot of questions about the intent of the production and whether there is actually any kind of pretence of self importance or visions of grandeur involved. The sort of questions I generally have to avoid. Whether Leo pushed himself to physical extremes or gagged on real animal blood is irrelevant to what's on screen which is mostly complete artifice. This is a spectacle movie in many ways after all, so I have to judge its content on the merit of what is actually presented and avoid awards season politics. So with this discussion of people squabbling over prizes out of the way, let's get into the film itself where people argue about the value of an entirely different kind of trophy.
Boy does it present a spectacle. Hugh Glass (stop sniggering at the back) is about to have a really bad day when his hunting expedition goes horribly wrong at every opportunity. The wildlife, the local population, the competing French party and the world itself all seem to be out to end the poor guy's existence. Things of course are made worse by his fellow fur traders, mainly Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who is concerned with the profits of this expedition over anything else. The struggle against the elements as well as against the pettiness of human nature is the major recurring theme here as things go from bad to worse. The cruelty or indifference of man and the wilderness around him is central to the events that take place.
At times the volume of mishaps are almost laughable, if they weren't so harrowing. Glass dodges bullets and arrows only to fall into gigantic waterfalls or off cliff sides. The unrelenting nature of this level of misfortune does allow for plenty of eye catching visuals and there a lot of sweeping camera movements and frozen vistas that allow Iñárritu to show his technical abilities. There are a few questionable visual effects amongst his use of real locations and real temperatures, but they're never too distracting and the bear attack that begins Glass's journey into torment looks great when things are in close up. But beyond the film making skills involved this is more about the characters involved which is where I found things to be a little more uneven.
DiCaprio has got all the attention for this, and while his facial contortions and grunts of agony are effective enough it never quite felt like a complete character to me. His lost family members are explored through eerie dreams and flashbacks, again allowing the visual flourishes to be centred on; but the guy himself isn't quite fleshed out enough for me. It's great, don't get me wrong, but if anything was lacking here it's a hook more interesting than simple loss and revenge. Tom Hardy as the bad apple in the group is far more interesting as a character and as a performance, adding another sinister face to his already impressive portfolio. His selfish cruelty is consistent with the world presented and his physical scars suggest deeper psychological damage.
Domnhall Gleeson as their leader during all of this is also great as usual, and the supporting cast are all solid additions to this unwashed ensemble. As a survival adventure it's a pretty miserable one where brief moments of compassion are buried in a never ending barrage of blood and ice. It's a gruelling, dark look at survival with moments of beauty, and the experience is certainly something worth checking out. Just don't expect it to be any fun.
In terms of the other Fox produced superhero efforts, they all look rather po-faced and serious in comparison to this. It's bloody, it's silly, and it's full of strong language. On the other hand it's still a hero origin story about vengeance and it ends with a big fight up on a high platform with explosions and scenery destruction. The same kind of problem came along in Kick-Ass where it started to become the thing they were parodying. But it's still entertaining and off beat in enough places to enjoy.
Fitting in with their X-Men series they include some fun side characters and a visit to Xavier's School. Well the exterior at least. Deadpool himself is kind of likeable and kind of annoying, thought I mainly lean towards the former. Not everything works though, and it's evident that during the long gestation period that some of the jokes and pop culture references haven't aged well. Even the jabs at more current events and all the frequent forth wall breaks are very hit and miss. It's fun... but it's not that consistent or twisted enough in a James Gunn sort of way to be the next Super or anything. Perhaps its success will let them push things further next time.