not in our stars, but in ourselves
As you’re probably aware, The Revenant is one of the eight nominees for Best Picture this year. I thought about that this morning, while I drank my coffee and scrolled through Twitter: twelve hours after I’d walked out of the theatre while the end credits rolled, I realized I’d hardly thought about The Revenant at all. It hadn’t stuck with me or spoken to me or made me think the way some of my other favorites had done. Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, Macbeth, Crimson Peak, The Force Awakens – these had all clanged and rattled and thrummed in my head for days afterwards. They aren’t all perfect movies (Fury Road is, obviously), but they all offered something compelling and entertaining and worthy of continued thought/enjoyment. If we’re going to talk about what makes a picture the best, I’d argue pretty strongly that some of those qualities ought to be present. The Revenant isn’t all bad – indeed, it has its very strong points – but it certainly wouldn’t get so much as a nod if I were in charge of selecting the year’s Best Pictures.
Let’s back up. In the 1820s, somewhere in the Dakotas or Montana, an American company of fur trappers is ambushed by Arikara Indians. Many of the men are killed, but some of them manage to scurry onto their ramshackle little boat and escape downstream. The Arikara were looking to steal pelts to trade with the French, who’ve also been skulking around the area, so it was nothing personal. Still, the company realizes that they’re not safe, so they decide to head back to their fortress. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the company’s most skilled navigator: he used to have a Pawnee wife (Grace Dove, seen in many flashbacks), so he understands the land better than the rest of the men. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a Texan who aims to make a hell of a lot of money while he’s part of this outfit, objects to Glass’s instructions to leave the pelts behind while they march onward to their camp, but he’s overruled by Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson). As luck would have it, Glass surprises a family of bears one morning. The mama bear swats him around, bumbles away to see that her cubs are having fun climbing trees, and then notices that Glass has failed Bear Safety 101: he grunts and drags himself towards his gun and fires at her. This outrages Mama Bear, as it would anyone, so she goes to town with an old-fashioned mauling. Glass manages to stab her in the neck with his knife, and they both go toppling down a ravine. Glass is horrifically injured; one thing leads to another; Fitzgerald leaves him for dead in the middle of the woods. Glass revenants himself all the way back to the fortress, through snow and hunger and Arikara posses and naughty Frenchmen.
I don’t mean to sound so dismissive. Let me talk about the things the film did well. Emmanuel Lubezki, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s frequent collaborator, is one of the best cinematographers working today, and he doesn’t hold anything back in The Revenant. He used only natural light to shoot Glass’s starkly beautiful journey through Hell, and the result is a film that looks far more art-house than its Hollywood credentials would suggest. Hardy is absolutely terrific as Fitzgerald, showing us a direct through-line from his pioneer bullshit artist to the Texan snake oil peddlers we currently have ruining our political system: he never stops trying to out-slime his opponent, playing every dirty mindgame in the book in order to get what he wants. Indeed, I think it would be not only just, but also incredibly funny, if Hardy won an Oscar while DiCaprio came up empty-handed yet again. Now, now, don’t worry. DiCaprio was good. He obviously put himself through considerable physical effort to turn in this performance; if that’s enough for us to revere the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, maybe it’s enough to get Leo his Oscar at long last. I think he’s all but a shoo-in this year, so – for the good of his health – let’s hope he finally wins.
At the start of this post, I said that I’d hardly given a moment’s thought to The Revenant after I’d finished watching it. However, when I forced myself to think about it – in order to try to cobble together some coherent thoughts for this silly review – I was struck again and again by the bad taste left in my mouth. Not because of all the White Male Misery Porn; not because of all the violence; not because of the eye-rolling dialogue; no, I have a terrible taste in my mouth because of the way Iñárritu et al. have elected to use Native Americans in this film. Consider the opening ambush: even though we’re permitted to see that these fur trappers are, frankly, a bunch of pricks, we’re still led to identify with them. Some of them aren’t so bad. Some of them – like Glass and his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) – are quite noble. And then, in come the Arikara, whooping and hollering and shooting arrows and throwing axes and laying waste to the company. They are presented as almost superhuman antagonists. Had the film rested there, maybe it would have been easier to bear: among the many difficulties faced by early pioneers were, I assume, Native Americans who were fighting to defend their own home. (Serves them right for trying to take what wasn’t theirs in the first place, but I digress.) Leave it there, and you’ve still got a bit of a mess, but nothing like the mess the film goes on to create. Glass happens upon a friendly Pawnee, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who nobly assists the grievously injured Glass – for about five minutes, at which point he’s hanged by the French. But wait! There’s more! In an effort to humanize the avenging Arikara (I guess? I think that’s the point?), we learn that Elk Dog (Duane Howard), the chief, is trying to find his daughter, Powaqa. She was abducted by white men, and Elk Dog leads his warriors along any trail he can find, hoping to find her. As it turns out, however, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) has been imprisoned by the French trappers all along. She is periodically raped by at least one of the Frenchmen. We see one of the rapes. It’s entirely unnecessary.
Unless your intent is to tell a rape-revenge story (and I did think at times that this was a sort of I Spit on Your Grave for bros; remember its tagline: “This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned four men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!”), you never have to include scenes of female brutalization. Since there’s more than enough brutality in The Revenant without this tidy opportunity for Glass to rescue Powaqa from her assailant (thereby granting him immunity from the Arikara in future – yes, really), it feels like a storytelling choice that’s as lazy and exploitative as it is unnecessary. Besides all that, I objected to the fact that we’re presented with the Powaqa subplot as a way to show that Elk Dog and the rest aren’t really wild savages bent on killing and pillaging. I could list a few thousand other, cleaner ways to come to that conclusion, so instead I will simply state that it doesn’t work. We hear Elk Dog say he’s looking for her. We see him haggle for some horses from the French (the very French who rape his daughter) so he can go searching for her. But where Glass gets long, dreamy flashbacks to his former days with his wife and son, all together as one big happy family, we never see Elk Dog’s pain or love or any discernible human emotion. This isn’t a fault of the actor. This is a fault of the script and the direction. Showing us one grieving father who screams and cries and has visions of his missing son, and then showing us another who doesn’t do much else besides tell his men, “Let’s go check out that camp. They might have my daughter” – well, let’s just say that they aren’t given equal dramatic weight.
Furthermore, even though Hardy is terrific in the role, Fitzgerald is entirely too much of a bad guy. Isn’t it enough that he decided to leave Glass for dead in the middle of nowhere? Isn’t that a sufficient sin? And yet, we get plenty of scenes in which Fitzgerald professes his racism, his hypocrisy, his sanctimoniousness, his straight-up cruelty. Hardy is good enough that he’s able to triumph over this embarrassment of rotten riches – but with a lesser actor, we would have gotten the SNL version of George W. Bush. Like Glass throughout the film, we really dodged a bullet there. It seems that Iñárritu goes for either feast or famine with his characterization: where we get almost no humanity in any of the Indians, we get entirely too much of it in the trappers. I don’t wish to accuse anyone of anything, but – again, like Glass, as he drags himself through muck and shelters himself in dead animals – it stinks all the same.