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A reflection on Alejandro Gonzàlez Iñàrritu’s 'The Revenant'

February 10, 2016

"Leo is a man. Are you a man?" "I;m not sure he is, Alejandro." "Guys, I'm totally a man. I'm like the dude of all men."
The best description I’ve seen of Alejandro Gonzàlez Iñàrritu’s most recent film was by some film critic on Twitter, who described seeing it at year’s end as akin to eating a steak dinner after having already gone through a buffet line. I can’t do better than that, but I will try in the name of Iñàrritu’s excess. I think he of all people will appreciate the masculine ego involved in such a task.

The Revenant’s source material is Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name, but cut into the film and there is a labyrinth of ground beef worms crawling in and out of Iñàrritu’s Western-style hamburger. For example, The Revenant’s last few frames appear lifted almost directly from Sydney Pollack’s 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford. An endless number of plot points and counterpoints also engage these two films in dialogue with another. Yet, it is those final frames of The Revenant—a lone white man staring across a stream and into the eyes of the Native population—that prove to be the film’s nexus.

Of course, this contemplation of the other—and therefore the self—is an archetype of frontier literature dating back to the fifteenth century and Christopher Columbus. And neither The Revenant nor Jeremiah Johnson invented nor discovered these cross-cultural moments. They also feel somewhat incomplete. 

The Revenant takes two and a half hours to arrive at this crossing. While this moment is quite similar in shape and occurrence to the contact zones in Babel, the scene also shares something similar to the moment where Riggan (Michael Keaton) in Birdman walks down an urban sidewalk on the brink of a breakdown and crosses paths with a homeless King Lear. The two men are binaries, only to recognize the one in the other collapses the binary. Throughout The Revenant, Iñàrritu creates this oppositional space between the film’s two primary patriarchs: Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud) and Hugh Glass (DiCaprio). And the final scene attempts to traverse it.

Even before Glass loses his son at the hands of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Hikuc leads a group of Pawnee men in search of his daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nkehk’o). In the end, they do find her. However, they only reunite with Powaqa after Glass saves her from a group of rugged French fur trappers. In the film’s conclusion, she eyes Glass with silent recognition. He is no longer a father or a husband. He is a ghost. And this ghost saved her. Therefore, she is a survivor of rape as well as a witness to Glass' possible merits as a frontier hero. Yet defining her in such a muted manner feels akin to having whittled Glass' epic down to the words: man survives bear.

While the film doesn't explore the notion fully, Powaqa is something more than a woman at the tomb. Or at least could and probably should have been. Alas, the film gravitates towards a gendered male center, which isn't exactly a negative, but is a missed opportunity to reinvigorate the Western genre.

Alejandro to Leo: "Make that intense face you do so well." Leo: "Am I doing it? Is this it? I can't see myself."
The Revenant’s opening frames focus on the water flowing over and through the wooded roots of the American wilderness. This natural beauty and its tranquility are soon clouded with gun smoke and set on fire with blood as a group of Pawnee attack a group of US fur trappers. This group of Pawnee, as stated earlier, seeks a stolen daughter. Her theft precedes the film’s beginning and alludes to the original sin that is the root of the European narrative in the western hemisphere: the theft of land and violence towards pre-Columbian peoples. Hence, this setting is already in apocalyptic upheaval. And the disruption flows like water.

Iñàrritu completes these combat-intensive frames with a series of tracking crane shots that hover just over the shoulder of his actors. The jarring results render the woods like the beaches of Normandy in the eye of Stephen Spielberg. In spite of all this mayhem, however, the film’s first on screen death belongs to a deer at the hands of Glass and his fellow hunters. They kill a buck and skin it for food. This killing out of necessity contrasts directly with the killing for fur and profit. Back at the trappers’ camp, Fitzgerald and other men fret over loading and storing the bounties of this latter type of killing. Meanwhile, the Pawnee hunt and track this band of white hunters while engaged in a third type of killing: the vendetta.

In this hierarchy of killing, hunting for food is natural. The film is at its most awe-inspiring when DiCaprio’s Glass morphs into a bear eating a fish or a wolf devouring a buffalo carcass. This latter scenario takes place in the presence of a Native American stranger. The two men behave like animals in midst of a snow-covered circle of blood and flame. Having yet to read Punke’s version of the Glass story, I cannot speak to whether this scene exists as so in his novel. But I do know that the scene correlates directly with one to be found in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985).

In McCarthy’s novel the unnamed kid and all the animals of the desert circle round a tree lit aflame by lightning. As the night passes, the young man feels part of a sacred kinship with all the organisms in creation. Yet, after this natural beauty surrenders to the hot, rising sun, the kid returns to a manner of living at odds with antiquity and nature. Instead, he and the other characters in the book aim to shape the world on principles that result in a violent, misbegotten logic. For McCarthy, this logic is the language of all human stories, and what is lost cannot be restored. The last scene in the novel’s epilogue is a description of holes being dug for fence posts. The drawing of the border between US and Mexico, according to McCarthy’s imagery, is a masculine ideal penetrating the earth’s indefensible body. It is, in other words, nothing short of a rape scene.

Iñàrritu’s depiction of the fur trade follows in the tradition of McCarthy, which follows in the footsteps of John Smith, Frances Bacon, and even Mesoamerican tales of the apocalypse. In all these narratives the land becomes gendered, and in the process, these narratives conflate the female body with the earth. When Glass rescues Hikuc’s daughter, he does so as a French fur trader Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) rapes her against a tree. In fact, her one line in the entire film is a rejection of masculine power and authority: “I’ll cut off your balls!” And, participating in that third type of killing, the vendetta, she does.

This scene, among others, positions the film’s search for vengeance in direct opposition to the film’s search for monetary wealth. Consider how when Fitzgerald murders Glass’ son he does so with the fear that the boy and his father are too much of a burden, that bearing them back to civilization will cost the men the profits of their fur-trapping expedition. Then, too, there is the vengeance Fitzgerald seeks against the Native populations, having himself been scalped at their hands. But what launched him into the wild other than a taste for profit and a dream of land in Texas? Vengeance in The Revenant, like anywhere else, is reactionary. This status renders the film’s most violent men more effect than cause, including both Fitzgerald and Glass.

When Glass witnesses the murder of his boy, he does so while on his back. Minutes later Fitzgerald and Bridger (Will Poulter) bury Glass and leave him for dead. At this juncture, the film also opens itself to a wide array of justifications for retribution against Fitzgerald, the Enlightenment, and the economic mechanisms that thrust men such as Fitzgerald into the wilderness in the first place. Keeping that in mind, Glass’ reliance on vengeance as a motive renders him as weak as it does strong. His life hollows itself in pursuit of one goal and a fatal one at that.

"Actually, Alejandro, the directions are pretty easy to follow. Now when do I get to talk about that squirrel god?"
Because the Western genre traditionally centers male protagonists as martyrs and scapegoats, interpreting The Revenant falls into similar ruts. Glass is buried alive. Glass crawls from the grave. Glass sleeps inside a smoke tent. Glass has visions. Glass rises from the tent. Glass rides off a canyon. Glass crawls naked into the warm womb of a dead horse’s body. Glass emerges from the dead horse. These scenes long for archetypal meaning, for Glass to arrive at some more mature, even spiritual understanding of the world, but he learns very little. Every time he is reborn his purpose remains the same: to kill the man who killed his son. Whatever pivot the film might make towards the spiritual is undercut—even bloodied— by its inability to let go of the Western protagonist’s traditional purpose of frontier justice.

When Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) recognizes by torchlight the long left for dead Glass, he exclaims, “Jesus!”

On an allegorical level, he could be labeling Glass a Christ figure. On a material level, though, he could simply be in disbelief and grasping at religious straws to explain what appears to be nothing less than a miracle. Either way, the resulting exclamation is either blasphemous or simply bad theology. And Glass’ own violent conviction subverts his christening.

On the verge of completing his revenge, Glass floats Fitzgerald down the river towards Hikuc and the Pawnee. Seeing Fitzgerald’s humanity floating in all its frailty recalls earlier scenes in the film where Glass’ own body cascaded down a torrent of waterfalls. Furthermore, just before shoving Fitzgerald’s body downstream, Glass observes, “Revenge is in God’s hands. Not mine.” Yet the proximity of the Pawnee renders this line mute. The scene’s baptism fails, and Glass does hand Fitzgerald over to a violent death. Thus, not only is Glass not Christ-like, but Hikuc’s own spirituality unravels. As the Pawnee patriarch scalps Fitzgerald, it becomes difficult to believe Hikuc’s words: “Revenge is in the creator’s hands.”

At this point any validating search for Christian values in The Revenant is a red herring. They do not exist here. In fact, Iñàrritu appears to look on the presence of Western religion in the New World as an impossible undertaking. A French sign, hanging from a lynched Native American, declares, “We are all savages.” So much for the Christian mission. And, when Glass ventures into the ruins of a stony church, he finds no roof and no written words, only a tree growing in place of the cross. This portrayal is in kind with McCarthy’s border novels, where Billy Parham finds church after church and town after town split asunder by earthquakes and time. According to these authors, nature’s disorder supersedes everything in the hemisphere, including God.

In accordance with this tradition, if Glass and Hikuc’s killing of Fitzgerald is to be read victoriously, then vengeance would have to belong not to them but to the natural world for which they have become the benefactors. After all, Glass cannot bring back his lost family, just as Hikuc cannot bring back a time without the white interloper. In this vein, what they needed from Fitzgerald was not death, but conversion to some prior order, unless death is the only true conversion.

In other words, the film suffers from a missed opportunity to be something different than its many Western predecessors. The choices made by Glass and Hikuc limit the world’s possibilities by opting to believe in a world devoid of both meaning and redemption. While not necessarily wrong, this story already exists in every Western gunfight or duel with a knife.

"In all of nature's infinite glory, I became trapped inside of myself, inside of a horse."
Perhaps the more daring ending would have witnessed both Glass and Hikuc, on either side of the mountain river, observing the passing of Fitzgerald’s still living body into the wilds of nature. Instead, the film offers the violence of Fitzgerald’s bleeding scalp and the sentimentality of seeing Glass’ wife conjoined in the shape of a paradoxical bowtie. The brute’s scalp is the reality of the physical world and the wife’s ghost is the glimmer of the spiritual one. Glass, because Hikuc passes out of consideration of the camera’s lens, is unable to transcend the boundaries between these two planes of existence.

Furthermore, he is no different at the end of his journey than he was at its beginning, and his hero’s journey is a confirmation not of valor but of the hero’s inability to grow as a human being.   

In turn, this inability of the hero to transcend the boundaries of the spiritual world roots the film in the physical separation of male and female bodies. From Glass’ failure to protect his family to a mother bear’s fight to protect her cubs, this film is essentially about how manmade values co-opt the sanctity of the family, and lead to losses in reproductive power. Without family, Glass is no longer a man. Instead, he is a killer. But all this is old hat. The theater of the frontier is almost always a laboratory for exploring when and how law and order create and break apart, and the hope in the future that bonds communities often surrenders to gun smoke and disruption.

Consider Shane’s retreat away from the valley town and into the rugged mountains. Without Mary, or any woman, by his side, he is but a gun and a ghost of life’s more peaceful alternatives. The difference, however, between Shane and Glass is that Shane leaves something in his wake. He restores a community’s promise, even while abandoning it. Glass’s retribution, on the other hand, is fatalistic. Far from any fort or homestead, he may very well bleed to death in the snow-capped American wilderness, and for what?   

When I saw it in the theater, audience members cheered Glass’ pummeling and slicing of Fitzgerald’s body. This cheering made me wonder whether Glass’ journey transformed him into being a better man than Fitzgerald or if the film had simply converted its audience into being more like Fitzgerald. In other words, The Revenant’s aura not only presents two failed ventures, but its power as a film subdues the audience into believing such failures are the underwritten structures of the universe. The first venture is the fur trappers’ failure to bring back all that they have killed, and the second venture is Glass’ failure to bring his family back to life after they have been killed. Interestingly enough, the only person in the film to ever question Glass’ purpose is Fitzgerald, which means the audience is never forced to confront Glass’ morality as a man in the context of the greater universe.

Instead, he can only be viewed in relation to the despicable Fitzgerald and the mournful Hikuc. Furthermore, the film’s dependence on a major film star (yes, DiCapprio) had all of us barking up the wrong ghost, conflating Oscar-gold with human blood, as Fitzgerald’s death became the film’s only possible ending. Little does the film pause to ask why or what else.  

"Still waiting on my epic movie."
If the audience were to look past The Revenant’s marketing campaigns and award show acceptance speeches, then perhaps something beyond the film’s impotent male bodies and self-centered imagination might surface. Perhaps the title could be interpreted to reference something much greater—the continent in all its defeated glory, its felled trees, its dammed rivers, its slaughtered beasts—than bloodlust. For this to happen, the ghosts in the picture would have to be perceived as something other than human and, more specifically, something other than male violence and its archetypes would need to be featured subjects. Perhaps the only character in the film who could have told such a story is Powaqa. After all, she endures so much and speaks so little. Her silence ruminates through all the world’s trees, and her gaze at film’s end, her recognition of all that Glass is and isn’t, still haunts me, if not Iñàrritu and the Academy

Bryan Harvey tweets with greater brevity @LawnChairBoys.

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