A revenant is a person who supposedly returns from the dead, and the word can be applied to several characters in the new film by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (he has dropped the ‘onzález’ for the time being). Most obviously it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s frontiersman Hugh Glass, who is mauled by a bear and left spluttering in a shallow grave by the film’s main antagonist, fellow fur trader Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). It also applies to Glass’s two immediate family members: his Native American wife (Grace Dove), killed during an earlier sacking of a village by white soldiers, appears in flashbacks and in Glass’s visions, which may well be the result of delirium as he crawls across the landscape in search of food (or possibly a sign of something else); Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who is murdered by Fitzgerald, thereby setting off a quest for revenge, also appears in a similar fashion. Less obviously Iñárritu and co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith (adapting Michael Punke’s novel of the same name) play with the theme during the film’s finale; a visual trick employed by Glass briefly brings another character ‘back to life’, while it is revealed that the head of an Arikara (Ree) Native American raiding party has found the daughter he has been searching for throughout the story, who – like Glass – had been given up for dead.
The Revenant promises much in terms of its exploration of the problematic history between white settlers and Native Americans, though it is more successful as a straightforward revenge or survival tale. It begins with a breathless and violent opening sequence in which the Arikara kill a substantial number of the hunting and fur trading party that Glass, Hawk and Fitzgerald belong to. These warriors are a threat to the white characters throughout, and are usually unseen, tracking the traders through the spectacular but inhospitable frozen landscape of modern-day Montana. We also see them doing business with another party of French traders, which takes on greater significance as the film progresses. By occasionally deviating away from the Glass/Fitzgerald story the writers clearly attempt to engage with the politics of the era, and the film manages to show how these disparate groups relied upon one another, even if there was mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides. The script touches on the issue of land theft as well as the sacking of Arikara and Pawnee settlements by soldiers, but ultimately Iñárritu keeps his flirtations with the concerns of the raiding party brief.
At one point Fitzgerald flippantly comments that ‘God giveth, God taketh away’, and his words could apply to possessions as much as they apply to life or land; ownership of pelts, horses and other objects is shown as transitory and uncertain, but nearly everything is important enough to shed blood over. Fitzgerald later grumbles that all the Arikara do is steal – the irony lost on this avaricious, self-centred character. It’s clear that Fitzgerald hates the Native Americans, yet there’s a carefully-constructed (convenient?) balance to the story, which depicts compatibility and harmony in equal measure alongside all the mistrust and misunderstanding: there’s a short but positive connection between DiCaprio’s injured, barely surviving hunter and lone traveller Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), and then there’s Glass’s loving relationships with his Pawnee and half-Pawnee family members, a back story for the main character that is completely fictional. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with such a fabrication, of course, and it serves a dramatic purpose, but a cynic might argue that such scenes, and the relevant Native American characters, are only in The Revenant to imbue the main character (and therefore the film) with a faux-spiritual, quasi-mystical sheen. The movie is the latest in a long list of westerns that attempt to show the Native American experience of the time through the eyes of a single white man, and in that respect it follows in the wake of films like Jeremiah Johnson, Dances With Wolves and Last Of The Mohicans, all of which featured white settlers living with Native Americans. It seems Hollywood is unwilling to show the Native American experience in the old west using only Native American characters, though I guess you could argue that racial issues are so central to that experience a mix of Native American and immigrant characters will always be necessary to explore them. Still, by Hollywood’s historical standards The Revenant is actually quite progressive, given that it employs actual Native American actors in Native American roles.
First and foremost, though, this is a tale about white men on the frontier (t’was ever thus). The story of revenge and survival at the heart of The Revenant is involving, and though it’s simple it would be churlish to deny that it isn’t enhanced by the film’s many strengths. These have been pointed out ad nauseam elsewhere, but I feel like I ought to cover certain factors that I enjoyed. It’s all obvious: the photography by Emmanuel Lubezki captures both the bleakness and the spectacular beauty of several different locations, and is superb even by his high standards, while the constant intensity of the performances by stars DiCaprio and Hardy is designed to impress, and impress me it did. Dutifully I should mention the action sequences, which I found gripping largely because the (apparent) single takes make you feel like you’re caught up in the middle of the mayhem, whether it’s that initial bloody raid, a desperate chase on horseback to a cliff edge or the infamous bear fight, during which Glass takes a thorough pounding.
Because the moments in-between these sudden exhilarating bursts of violence are fairly long, and sometimes quite slow, there are times when watching the film feels like an ordeal. (And look, when I say it’s an ordeal, obviously watching it is nothing compared to the Glass’s real-life struggle, or even the notoriously tough shoot, though you could say that The Revenant is light fayre when compared with a film that’s really lengthy and caked in filth, such as last year’s Hard To Be A God.) It’s chilly, and not just because it is set in the middle of an icy winter, while there’s a relentless grimness in its depiction of a relentlessly grim time and place. As such its good-looking stars, including Domhnall Gleeson as the Captain leading the party, spend most of the time with masses of saliva, blood and dirt residing in their proto-hipster beards. They’re all good-looking fellas, though, and particularly with regard to DiCaprio that’s something the director and his make-up department can’t hide even when they cover the cold, wet star in shit.
The length of a film doesn’t usually bother me, but particularly not when I’m watching a film by Iñárritu, who I think is a fine establisher of mood and a director who is skilled at employing a tonal consistency. It’s problematic for some that his films are so serious and relentlessly downbeat, but not for me, and I like this almost as much as I like earlier works such as Amores Perros and Biutiful. For a number of reasons watching DiCaprio slowly make his way across the terrain is quite engrossing, and thanks to Lubezki’s photography – sorry, but it bears repeating, there are some truly magnificent shots here – it remains visually stimulating throughout. I’m less enamoured by the film’s mystical bells and whistles, but that does at least raise some intriguing questions about the physical state of the main character, particularly at the end.
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Written by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mark L. Smith. Based on The Revenant by Michael Punke.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Arthur Redcloud, Grace Dove, Duane Howard.
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki.
Editing: Stephen Mirrione.
Music: Ryuchi Sakamoto, Alva Noto.
Running Time: 156 minutes.