Will Glass break? That is the question throughout director Alejandro Inarritu’s gruelling epic of human endurance.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s mauled frontiersman Hugo Glass is given – by the disregard of man and nature – many opportunities to relinquish his mangled body for a bit of peace but persistently declines to do so.
The film, inspired by true events and set in 1823 Montana and South Dakota, demands the audience to share in every wince, scream and slash. Injuries are inflicted by, among other things, cold, rifle butt, arrow, bear and bullet and none has the consolations of aspirin, Band-Aid.
Glass is part of a Rocky Mountain Fur Company hunting party. When their makeshift settlement is attacked by Indians (in visceral scenes that call to mind Saving Private Ryan), the survivors need to make their own way back to their fortified outpost.
This party is fractured further. After Glass is attacked by a bear in an astonishing torture porn sequence, a bedraggled troop goes on ahead, leaving him to the care of mendacious pragmatist Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), naive Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass’s half-Indian son Hawk (Forest Goodluck).
Fitzgerald is not one for charity and their brief unity ends with Glass buried alive, barely breathing and in no fit state to thumb a lift let alone make his way across an uncompromising wilderness.
(Eat your popcorn early because his diet descends into territory Bear Grylls fears to tread.)
DiCaprio doesn’t so much act as roar his way through the movie. Spittle-flecked exhortations of pain double for dialogue and most of the work is done in his eyes.
At one point, wrapped in fur and dragging a reluctant body, he becomes little more than a primeval blob creature fixed solely on survival and evolving by will alone. Thoughts of revenge keep body and soul in a tentative alliance.
Hardy, Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson (as Capt Andrew Henry) offer the scant comforts of human interaction, however poisonous, in a film where talking is, literally, a waste of breath.
Inarritu’s famous camerawork saw Birdman made, apparently, in one shot. Here, his direction is equally charismatic. His camera – left to peer into gaping wounds or, in one case, mull over a horse carcass sleeping bag (yup) – is occasionally let loose to become the human spirit.
It gazes upwards, through the trees, it bounds joyfully like a puppy looking for mischief; it swoops majestically through beguiling landscapes. In all this Inarritu finds moments of delicate beauty which is an extraordinary achievement in the context of such brutality.
It is an intense journey for Glass (and DiCaprio) and one of those movies that transcends cinema to such great effect that the closing credits come as a waking relief, like the end of a sweat-drenched nightmare.