Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Writer: Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1
There’s a foreboding about the time this takes place. We see a nascent America. In many ways it’s like we’re seeing further into the past than we’ve ever seen before. There have been other films, there are old photographs and paintings and perhaps recreations, but rarely have the characters looked so real. We see the Natives that we eventually destroyed in a way that was more vivid than anything that’s ever been produced before.
The story is simple in its structure. Brilliantly simple, in the ways that old westerns like Nevada Smith, Fort Apache, or Rio Bravo are simple. It’s a cat and dog chase/escape story, with a man who’s stuck deep in the woods, injured, and trying to get out, fighting against a terrifying enemy, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Both characters are fascinating with Hardy also delivering one of his greatest performances, further solidifying himself as this generation's greatest and most formidable talents; the rare type of actor where you’ll watch anything he’s in.
I’ve had a few people mention how little dialogue there is in the film. I never even noticed. It actually wasn’t until I heard Inarritu mention the fact in the THR Director's Roundtable interview (see below) that I believed it. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is so incredible that he communicates more with his face than any words could offer. Each moment produced a myriad of interpretations, allowing the viewer to contemplate what they would do and floored by how genuine and real his choices are.
The film plays similar to a Cormac McCarthy book, except with less characters and syllables. There is an authenticity here that I’ve only found in his novels. It all felt so real. There were a few moments where the special effects might have got in the way, but most of the battles were nearly as terrifying as those in Saving Private Ryan. You feel that America as we know it was unrecognizable; a world where, if something happened, you would die and no one would care, remember, or probably ever know. In Hugh’s case, he was abandoned out of pragmatism. Carrying him along could have hurt them all and their profits, and Hugh might have even made the same choice.
Leonardo DiCaprio has mentioned capitalism in a few interviews. The way it was introduced into the area, and the way it destroyed the Native cultures. I’m surprised he went so far with it. Of course it’s there. It’s that big bad, heavy word that people try to roll their eyes at, but it’s also where the bleak tone emanates from. This film is holding up the looking glass. As discussions about inequality take the forefront of our politics, it’s clear that people are wondering how much further the greed can go. What other superfluous excesses are going to be pursued at the cost of those with so little power? Hugh’s survival doesn’t mean that he becomes a saint. It means that he killed two men, and will now return to a life on the great frontier. He is Manifesting his Destiny. If you read about the real Hugh and how he became an equitable swindler after his return, we can’t be too sure that Leo portrays him any differently. He sends John to the Natives who’re guaranteed to slice off his scalp in exchange for money or freedom, rather than ending his misery.
The title could also mean that Leo is simply a ghost, doomed in similar ways to how the infamous capitalist Ebenezer Scrooge or noble George Bailey were doomed. Perhaps his punishment for killing the officer is to live this life over and over again, until he finally can avoid killing. Or maybe it’s a one time experience; a cost to pay in order to enter into heaven.
I don’t know if I believe those things, though the title does make an interesting suggestion. It makes me want to watch it again with all these thoughts in mind. Like any great film there is so much to take. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men are the two of the last Great American Films, where almost anyone who watches them could enjoy them, capturing the zeitgeist at a significant crossroads in American History, as most great art does. Looking back, with maybe the exception of The Social Network (I’m reserved because I think most people over 30 at this point didn’t get it), nothing else has come close. Until now. This is a Great American Film.
BELOW: In line with greatness, 2015's THR Director's Roundtable was, by far, the best of the series.
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.