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Non-Review Review: The Revenant

The Revenant is a beautiful and visceral piece of work.

Sporting a troubled production history, The Revenant is surprisingly straightforward film. Based on the tale of famed fur trapper (and tall-tale-teller) Hugh Glass, The Revenant charts one man’s journey from near-death back to civilisation against the harsh and unforgiving American wilderness. The Revenant is essentially a journey in a straight line, as Glass struggles to find a way back to security and revenge himself upon his colleagues who left him for dead. The film’s biggest structural issues lie in a desire to distort or convolute that straight line.

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However, the fairly linear and straightforward plot is really just a framework for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to present the audience with striking vistas and symbolism that ranges from blindingly obvious to wilfully obtuse. The film is absolutely stunning, capturing its tone perfectly and presenting any number of memorable images and moments. Even when the visual trips sideways or backwards feel indulgent or unnecessary, they are still beautiful.

The Revenant is perhaps a little too fixated on over-complicating what is a fairly straightforward narrative, with a script that can seem unexpectedly obtuse for what is basically a single long chase movie crossed with a classic “man against nature” survival film. Nevertheless, the result is a striking piece of work that is awe-inspiring in visual (and visceral) terms.

therevenant7The Revenant is effectively a genre film that blends together a host of very familiar story beats. Even viewers who lack any familiarity with the story of Hugh Glass will recognise the basic dynamics at play. The Revenant is a blend of western revenge film and survival horror, following a very clear set of story beats as our hero finds himself alone and under threat in the vast American wilderness. The legend of Hugh Glass has become something of a frontier myth, the tale of man’s sheer unrelenting determination to survive.

There is every indication that writers Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith understand that the basic story of The Revenant lends itself to a simple linear narrative. Perhaps acknowledging that Hugh Glass might have been more interested in a good story than accurate history, Iñárritu and Smith heavily fictionalise Glass’ account to serve their own dramatic needs. For example, The Revenant creates a son who accompanies Glass on the ill-fated expedition, in order to provide more personal stakes for the drama.

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It should also be noted that The Revenant is also keenly aware of the genre expectations that come with this kind of western story. While the real-life Hugh Glass reportedly tracked down the men who abandoned him in order to reclaim the property they looted from him and leaving both alive, The Revenant makes it quite clear that its version of Hugh Glass is engaging in a rip-roaring rampage of revenge. The script offers repeated (and occasionally unearned) meditations on the nature of human retribution.

The character motivations and dynamics at play in The Revenant are kept simple and accessible. The lead characters are all very clear about what exactly they want at a given moment in time, with most of the main players consumed by a singular purpose. Hugh Glass wants righteous revenge for his abandonment. John Fitzgerald wants economic freedom no matter the cost. Captain Andrew Henry wants to do his duty to his men and his employers. Elk Dog wants to track down his missing daughter, Powaqa.

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Indeed, there is something almost darkly humourous about how thoroughly The Revenant commits to these straightforward motivations. For the first half of the film, it frequently seems like Elk Dog does nothing but randomly wander into scenes to repeat that his daughter has gone missing before wandering off once again. Indeed, The Revenant itself is prone to repeat itself to the point of grim humour. The film is sadistic in its treatment of Hugh Glass, but there are points at which it feels like the narrative reduces Leonardo DiCaprio to a human Wile E. Coyote.

Then again, this straightforwardness is the point of The Revenant. Although nowhere near as wry and ironic as Birdman, the film is keenly aware of its own artifice.Not only do Iñárritu and Smith tweak the source material of their “true” story, but Iñárritu also consciously makes the camera as much a performer as DiCaprio or Hardy. The Revenant features a number of the extended takes that made Birdman so self-aware, the irony of a seemingly naturalistic approach that draws attention to itself.

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However, several of the actors and characters interact with the camera at various points. A digitally-created bear fogs up the lens with its breath during one of the extended takes. Blood and water splatters across the screen. Iñárritu seems to nod every so slightly towards the audience’s complicity in all this, acknowledging that the brutality of the film is very much pushing the expectations of this “man versus nature” story to its logical conclusion. No wonder the closing shot finds a character staring out of the camera, as if accusing the audience.

The simplicity of the story is something of a double-edged sword. Occasionally, The Revenant aims for a profundity that feels somewhat clumsy. In particular, its resolution to the story’s central conflict feels somewhat trite; the dialogue repeatedly sets up the outcome, but there is something cynical about how The Revenant tries to have its cake and eat it when meditating on the moral cost of revenge. Similarly, the movie’s spiritual themes occasionally feel a little too heavy-handed for what is a fairly straightforward narrative.

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And, yet, for all these flaws, The Revenant is a film as beautiful as it is bleak. The film was notoriously difficult to film, becoming a legendary ordeal for those involved. It is a cliché to suggest that the suffering is visible on screen, given that key part of the art of film production is to create the illusion of such suffering. Still, The Revenant is a film that is unflinching and powerful. Iñárritu skilfully conveys each and every trauma endured by Glass, hammering the audience to the point where they feel almost as haggard and drained by the experience.

In all this horror, Iñárritu and Lubezki find a stark beauty. Were The Revenant to be stripped of its dialogue and score, it would remain a visual pleasure. The landscape is bleak, but it is also breathtaking. At one point, a group of survivors cross a waterfall look terrifying, but there is something impressive in the elaborate form of the ice that has formed around it, a macabre natural sculpture that reminds the audience of the beauty and danger of nature. Nature looks as wonderful as it does foreboding, as awe-inspiring on this side of the screen as it is terrifying on the other.

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The Revenant is relatively linear in its storytelling, even if it occasionally feels like there are occasionally a few too many lines. However, the horror of Glass’ predicament affords Iñárritu free reign for more stylistic touches. Quick flashbacks are intercut with abstract imagery, suggesting that the film might drift towards the edge of reason as easily as it charts the edge of the frontier. The Revenant occasionally feels like something of a waking dream, with images unrelated to the particulars of the plot lingering longest after the closing credits.

At one point, Glass has a touching dreamtime reunion with a loved one inside a church, while he also imagines the comet from Birdman guiding him back to Fitzgerald. There is a sense that Iñárritu is over-signifying slightly, there there is just a little bit too much symbolism at work for what is a fairly simple story. However, it is churlish to complain when it looks so good. The Revenant might seem a little too preoccupied with thematic imagery that is quite unnecessary and occasionally unearned, but the imagery itself is no less impressive for that excess.

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The Revenant is very much framed in terms of the western genre; given its historical setting, the use of Native Americans, the theme of the American frontier, its themes of rugged machismo and sheer unrelenting endurance. At the same time, Iñárritu filters all of these elements through an aesthetic that is rooted very much in survival horror. One of the additions to the script is the idea that the characters are not only running towards something, but also running away from something. Confusion and panic, not to mention anxiety, are among the film’s primary modes.

In a way, The Revenant can be framed in terms a broader cultural shift in the contemporary western. It is a cliché to suggest that the western is an outdated genre that has been deconstructed and reconstructed to the point that it is largely redundant; it is very hard to imagine a writer and director doing something new with the genre, because so much has been done already. At the same time, the past year has seen a number of films engage with the western genre as hybrid, mixing in elements of horror.

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The Hateful Eight is perhaps the most obvious example. Tarantino’s film borrows heavily from The Thing, featuring a bunch of people trapped in a secluded (and cold) locale led by Kurt Russell and paranoid that one of their confederates “ain’t what he seems.” Indeed, Tarantino borrowed quite literally from The Thing, appropriating Ennio Morricone’s unused score for his film. However, there is also the cult-classic-in-waiting Bone Tomahawk that blends classic western archetypes with cannibal horror.

It is interesting to wonder whether this shift means anything in a larger cultural sense. The western is, after all, a hugely symbolic genre. It is the archetypal myth of American identity, the foundation myth of the national identity. Perhaps the willingness to blend that imagery with horrific themes and visuals reflects a broader anxiety about American history and the realities that are glossed over in the simple act of myth-making. The Revenant returns time and time again to this imagery.

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The Revenant does not present the American frontier as a glorious expanse of untapped potential, but a hostile wilderness upon which man’s baser instincts might be unleashed. The film is most striking in its visual presentation of that wilderness with Iñárritu repeatedly playing with the audience’s sense of scale. Objects (particularly trees) often seem much larger than they are, with Iñárritu favouring low angles that allow the trees to crowd out the shot; occasionally they stretch toward infinity, only dwarfed by shows of the mountains or the plains.

The wilderness is presented as hostile and deceptive. Shapes only gradually reveal themselves in the mist. Elk seem to materialise as if from nowhere, while only the sharpest eyes will spot attackers hidden in the foliage before they have a chance to strike. Even an experienced wilderness scout like Glass can be caught off-guard, failing to spot danger before it bears down upon him. The American landscape is dirty and inhospitable. It reflects the men who have arrived to colonise it.

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The Revenant returns to the imagery of death, particularly an abstract flashback image of Glass examining a macabre sculpture constructed from the skulls of small animals. The film seems to suggest that country’s foundation is built upon a boneyard, a theme literalised when Fitzgerald attempts to bury Glass alive in order to earn enough money to buy his own land down in Texas. The Revenant suggests that the land is marked; whether through graves or bones or blood stains, or even in the messages Glass literally carves into the frontier implicating his betrayer.

The film also makes repeated and none-too-subtle jabs at capitalist excess. When a French survivor arrives at camp, scarred and starving, he is forced to pay for his meal. Fitzgerald’s betrayal of his colleague and his duty is motivated by his desire for financial independence. Fitzgerald is reluctant to abandon his haul of pelts when attacked by Native Americans. When Captain Henry suggests that this is the only way to save their lives, Fitzgerald responds, “I ain’t got a life. I got a living.”

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As played by Hardy, Fitzgerald is the film’s most intriguing character. DiCaprio does good work as Glass, but he is playing more the embodiment of sheer unrelenting willpower than a full-formed human being. (Given the folk legend that Glass would become, this feels appropriate; at the same time, there points where Glass feels more like a ball of yarn being batted around by a sadistic production team.) Fitzgerald is flawed and weak, but he is also strangely sympathetic in his own way.

The Revenant allows Fitzgerald his rationalisations, but also explores his own personal reality. Appropriately enough, given his profession, Fitzgerald is a man who was trapped long before wilderness legend Hugh Glass set his sights upon him. As much as the great American frontier myth offers freedom and self-determination, the economic realities of the time were quite different. Even when it seems like Fitzgerald might finally have enough money to retire to a life of peace and tranquility, the system ensure that he cannot escape its grasp.

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In fact, many of the movie’s other themes are filtered through this capitalist critique. The Revenant returns time and time again to the relationship between God and man, particularly in matters of revenge and retribution. However, the film repeatedly identifies God as that which provides in very literal and material terms; the next meal, the next shelter, the flask to hold the water. At one point, Fitzgerald relates how his father found God in squirrel while hiding in the wilderness. “I found God,” his father boasted. “And I shot Him, and I ate Him.” God provides.

The Revenant presents a version of the American frontier that is predicated on the idea of violence and theft. Glass is leading a bunch of fur trappers, harvesting the skin of the continent’s wildlife. When Elk Dog is accused of stealing animal pelts to trade with French settlers, he responds, “You all have stolen everything from us.” As Fitzgerald examines a massacred Native American encampment, he is surprised to find property belonging to the settlers there. “Always stealin’ sh!t,” Fitzgerald hypocritically observes while slipping the memento into his own pocket.

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Iñárritu proposes the wilderness as a place where man acts upon his basest instincts, suffering and pain inflicted by men upon men in a vicious cycle. This is perhaps the most indulgent aspect of The Revenant, with Iñárritu eschewing the fairly standard straight-line plotting of a revenge western for something decidedly more convoluted. Although Glass’ trajectory is kept relatively linear, the script allows the other characters to swirl around him like marbles spilling across a polished floor.

The result is a film that should be a straight line (“Glass hunts down the men who left him for dead”) becomes more of a swirl or spiral. Glass’ journey intersects with Fitzgerald’s own character arc, Elk Dog’s search for his missing daughter, Captain Henry’s sense of duty and a bunch of French traders. These elements frequently collide with one another, their impact rippling through the story in a convoluted train of cause and effect that occasionally runs the risk of drowning out the elegant simplicity of Glass’ struggle to survive.

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There is a sense that The Revenant is overcrowded somewhat, that the basic premise of the film is stretched too thin across two-and-a-half hours with so much else going on. This is, of course, the thematic point of the movie; there is a sense that the spiral etched into Glass’ watering can that becomes a plot point later on also represents the characters’ journeys; an ever-shrinking circle rather than a simple line. Even the vast and impressive American wilderness is not large enough for peaceful coexistence.

The Revenant is every bit as cynical about human nature as Birdman was, albeit without the reflexive irony that coated the bitterness in caustic self-awareness. The Revenant is positively Hobbesian in outlook, suggesting humanity’s primal state is warfare. As he struggles to survive, Glass becomes increasingly animalistic; he crawls out of his grave clad in bear-skin death shroud. Later, Glass feasts on raw bison liver and struggles to stand upright. Glass dreams of a ruined church, its man-made walls unable to keep out the wilderness.

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The Revenant is a bleak and beautiful piece of cinema. It is perhaps a little too convoluted for what is a fairly simple (and linear) narrative, but it is a bold and memorable piece of film-making. Haunting and harrowing in equal measure.

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2 Responses

  1. The best telling of the Hugh Glass story I have run across is contained in the book “Give Your Heart to the Hawks: A Tribute to the Mountain Men” by Win Blevins

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