Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 7 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait.
They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie.
When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
I admit it. I had to look up the meaning of the title—though in 21st century style, it was via Google rather than in my old print dictionary. In case it is not in your every day vocabulary, it is derived from a French word meaning “ghost,” and in English refers to one who, like Lazarus, returns from the dead. And just as filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu expects us to know (or look up) the meaning of his title, also he never spoon feeds us during the film as to the meaning of what is transpiring, no matter how confusing it is at first. Set in the wilderness of the Rockies in the early 19th century, the film about a party of fr trappers is filled with gut-wrenching violence. It is primarily a survival and vengeance tale (aren’t most Westerns as well?) with the subplot of a quest story. The major, truth-based, story is that of white frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), and the lesser one woven throughout is the search by a band of Arikara Indians. They are led by the old chief Elk Dog (Duane Howard), obsessively looking for his daughter.
Rather than with a bang, the film starts out with a swoosh. A band of Indians is attacking the large party of fur trappers intent on returning east with a large, valuable cargo of pelts. The trappers have come up the Missouri River on horses and a flatboat. The attack, made while most of the trappers are on land, is a surprise, with many of the men dying as an arrow penetrates their backs or their throats, blood gushing forth like geysers. Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), leader of the group orders the men back to the boat. The expedition’s guide Hugh Glass and his Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) rush back from their hunting mission in the woods. After the fight, during which 33 of the trappers are killed, Glass says that they must abandon the boat and bury their pelts if they are to escape safely from the Indians. One of the party, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who obviously does not like Glass because of the guide’s marriage to an Indian, is upset by this, but Henry, trusting the seasoned frontiersman, agrees.
The next day Glass ventures into the woods alone. He spots a pair of grizzly bear cubs and realizes too late that he has ventured between them and their mother. She attacks him, and though he manages to fire and wound her, she closes on him, biting and tearing at him. In detail so vivid that it is hard to watch we see her tearing at his back and flipping him around as if he were a rag doll. He manages to kill the beast, but his throat is badly mauled, and the wounds to his body so great that he cannot stand up. When the others find him they are convinced that he is too injured to survive.
Fitzgerald argues that they should put an end to his life, but Captain Henry refuses. They drag him along on a travois, but this slows them down, and when they must climb over a mountain, they find the task impossible. At the urging of Fitzgerald Henry aims his pistol at the wounded man, but he cannot bring himself to shoot. Instead, he offers a bonus to any two men who will stay behind and tend to Glass until he passes away, after which they can catch up with the main party. Fitzgerald quickly agrees, as does young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Hawk, unable to abandon his father also stays. Left by themselves with Glass, it is not long before Fitzgerald voices his desire to end the life of the guide, arguing that he will die no matter what they do. When Hawk struggles with him, the older, more powerful man manages to stab him, the helpless father watching in horror the murder of his cherished son. Bridger had been off in the woods, and when he returns, Fitzgerald says they will bury the almost dead Glass. Bridger is against this, but finally gives in, the two digging a shallow grave in which the almost comatose Glass will be buried alive. Fitzgerald heads out, leaving the younger man to finish covering up their victim. Unable to do so, Bridger leaves Glass his canteen.
Left behind to die, Glass’s struggle for survival includes tending his wounds, managing to build fires at night while using his outer garment as a shelter, fording cold streams, catching a fish that he eats raw, and more. It is memories (or visions) of his wife, who had been murdered by soldiers during a raid on the village, that sustain him during his days of suffering. Words from his wife that he had also shared with his son come back to him, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.” There is one beautifully photographed scene in an abandoned mission, its bell still in place. There, by a murals of the crucified Christ, he sees his son. They embrace warmly. Then he is brought back to his present state in which he is hugging a tree.
Interspersed in Glass’s ordeal are scenes of a rival French band of trappers and those of Elk Dog and his braves still seeking his kidnapped daughter. All of these figure into Glass’s survival, even the daughter. There also is a moment of grace when the now starving trapper sees a large herd of bison. With no weapon, the huge beasts whose flesh could save his life might as well be on the moon. However, he comes upon a lone Native American named Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud) cutting meat from a carcass. The brave not only tosses him a hunk of meat, but also then tends to his wounds. He even allows Glass to ride behind him on his mount. This interval of intercultural friendship and calmness provides the film’s only light moment: the two sit huddled up during a snowfall and the warrior sticks out his tongue to catch snowflakes. Smiling, Glass follows suit, the two enjoying the moment of companionship. Unfortunately this soon devolves into ironic tragedy.
The eventual return to the fort for a reunion with the amazed Captain Henry gives way to Glass’s search for Fitzgerald, who had recently departed. The final resolution is both tragic and uplifting, with Glass giving way to the wisdom of both Biblical and Native American concerning vengeance. Although difficult to watch at times because of its violence and bleakness, the film is one more testimonial to the greatness of filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He sweeps away all romantic illusions about the early West, as well as raising issues of white prejudice that still haunt us today. He is well served by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-worth performance, as well as by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, his camera showing us the beauty of the vast mountainous landscape, juxtaposed with the ugly savagery of its inhabitants, both human and animal. Definitely not for young children, this will be one of those films that will stay with you for a long time.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2016 issue of VP.