The Revenant was cool. In fact it was damned cool!
By ‘damned cool’ I might mean ‘damned hard to watch,’ but then again damned hard to watch can be damned cool. Tastes vary, of course, but watching a CGI brown bear maul Leonardo DiCaprio was well worth the price of admission.
No, I don’t hate DiCaprio. Quite the contrary. It takes some skill to sell that kind of suffering, and he does it damned well.
This is the story of Hugh Glass, a mountain man most famous for surviving an attack by a bear, and (more impressive still) for surviving his subsequent predicament. Left for dead, the man somehow made it roughly 200 miles to safety (mostly by crawling, as I understand it). The real story of Glass is impressive enough as it is, which is one reason writers and movie-makers keep coming back to it. The Revenant weaves its own narratives around the tale of Glass and his trials.
This movie is every bit as bleak and terrible as you might have thought. Images of human suffering abound, and of course the central story here is one about perseverance in the face of tremendous adversity. By perseverance I of course mean suffering. I might even have to write ‘suffering’ in this review a few more times, just to make sure you get the point. There is a lot of suffering in this film. But what does all the suffering add up to?
Therein lies the nitpickery point!
It’s a vision of the frontier as a place filled with violence and pain. That frontier has very little in the way of love, stability, family, or community. The things that connect human beings to one another in meaningful ways have been all but removed from the world of this story. When such connections do appear in this film, they appear to be fragmenting …painfully. Glass, for example, has already lost his Indian wife as the story begins. He will lose his son midway through the story, and he will end the film quite alone.
It isn’t the bear that sets off all this tragedy. It is the leader of an Arikara party who keeps attacking Glass and his companions. This character, we learn, is actually seeking his own daughter, whom he believes to have been captured by Glass’ party. Glass’ doomed wife and son as well as the daughter of the Arikara leader are the only bonds of kinship that I recall from the film, and each is unraveling even as the film begins. We are left with a world in which love itself comes into focus only through the medium of pain.
It’s worth considering for a moment that this kind of world cannot exist over the long duration. There are no births in this world, nor are there the means of nurturing future generations. These are men operating on the fringes of their own communities and/or in the wilderness emerging between them. It comes close to a Hobbesian time of war, or perhaps more appropriately to Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier as the meeting place between savagery and civilization. Even the Native Americans in this film seem unable to keep a family together. This is the myth of the west taken to 11. It’s a world that must pass, either to complete destruction or eventually into some semblance of social order. It is the latter of course to which this sort of frontier narrative points us, as the frontier anticipates the coming of civilization. For now, we are left to contemplate a world in which few (if any) are born and a good many die every third or fourth scene.
I can’t help but think many will imagine this is the world frontiersman found when they entered the American wilderness, though I’m more inclined to think of it as a world they made by that very entry.
If there is a truly objectionable feature to this narrative theme, it would be the role played by friendly Natives. Some readers may be familiar with the phrase ‘magic negro’, which is usually taken to refer to a stock character used in all-to-many Hollywood films. The magic negro is usually gifted with some mystical power, often a sort of impossible wisdom which he will use to aid the white protagonist in a given story. Just as often, the magic negro will die before the end of the narrative, leaving the great white protagonist to resolve matters using whatever gifts his friend left behind. Suffice to say the magic negro needn’t really be a negro, though it does seem rather commonly to be a minority of some kind. In The Revenant, Glass enjoys the help of not one, not two, but three magic minorities, all Native Americans.
The First (and oddly enough also the last) of these supernatural mentors would be Glass’ wife. Having been slain in a prior event, she continually returns in the form of visions which inspire Glass to continue. Whether these are meant to be real or simply features of his own imagination isn’t really very important. The bottom line is that she is long gone, but she continues to serve as an inspiration to him. She appears at the very end of the film as well, seeming to say goodbye.
The second of these characters would be Glass’ son who remains loyal to him even as his injuries appear to leave Glass without hope of recovery. This loyalty will cost Glass’ son his life, but that in turn will provide Glass with the motivation to survive, to avenge the death of his son.
The third of these magic Indians appears in the form of Pawnee who shares food with Glass, travels with him, and cures him when Glass is overcome with infections. Glass will awaken to find himself well on the road to recovery even as he discovers his Pawnee friend hanging from a tree, leaving him to face yet another terrible challenge quite alone.
Time and again, Glass benefits from Native characters even as they themselves pass away. The death of the magic minority is that much more fitting here insofar as it perpetuates the narratives of western conquest. Native characters may hamper the frontiersman as does the Arikara leader, or they may aid him, as do each of the magic Indians in this film, but it is simply no coincidence that the white protagonist finishes the story on his own.
Does this work? Yes. It’s a Hell of story, and I plan to watch it again. And perhaps it works partly because of the very tropes that have me griping about the story right now. Some may find them extraordinarily compelling even as I find them terribly disappointing. I can’t help but think more interesting stories await the film-maker who learns to take Native characters a bit more seriously.