Origin of revenant: 1820-30; French: ghost, noun use of present participle of revenir to return, equivalent to re- + ven (ir) to come (Latin venīre); a person who returns as a spirit after death; a person who returns.
I could talk about Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” solely in terms of its beauty and savagery, due not only to the execution of the film but also due to the subject matter of a wounded, abandoned figure fighting for survival, almost completely alone, in the epic and unforgiving frontier of 19th century America.
After the first viewing, I would have suggested people bring lots of water (for hydration) and no small amount of patience before they embarked on the journey with Leonardo DiCaprio; it’s a long one, engaging in slow, sweeping shots of panoramic views along with lingering close-ups of the exhausted and recovering DiCaprio as he plays Hugh Glass, the frontiersman who’s steadily trekking after the one who murdered his son and abandoned him in the snowy wild.
But surprisingly, after recently seeing Scorsese’s “Silence”, I would have to reverse that opinion and give none of that advice for “The Revenant.” Although the two films have almost the exact same runtime, well over 2 hours, I felt it acutely during Scorsese’s film whereas time seemed to fly by during Iñárritu’s masterpiece of betrayal, survival, and revenge. Didn’t dislike Scorsese’s exploration of the “hidden Christians” of 17th century Nagasaki, Japan, but as fascinating as the topic is, its ultimate message feels somewhat inconclusive to me.
For those who wouldn’t mind escaping car chases or explosions or mini skirts or hip pop references and frantic pacing, this movie is a huge relief. Yes, it broaches the topic of racism, which, although many have tried dearly to ignore or minimize it, we can see with renewed eyes today, especially after the recent elections, that to continue to do so will be to our imminent peril. And, yes, a terrible, unforgiving thirst for revenge is the engine which drives this man.
So between his all-consuming rage and ghastly physical suffering, the relentless attacks of the Arikara tribe who are also searching for the chief’s missing daughter, the French hunters who happen to be holding prisoner and raping said daughter, and myriad other randomly violent and demoralizing situations occurring in the story, it may hardly feel like a vacation at all from present-day movies. Why not watch explosions and car chases, right? What’s the difference?
On a side note, according to a Wikipedia article, a Canadian actor was “strongly critical of the movie for portraying French-Canadian voyageurs as murderous rapists.” And according to Allan Greer, the Canada Research Chair in Colonial North America, “generally the American traders had a worse reputation than the Canadians.”
As for reasons why the stress level of this movie is any different from those of action-packed non-period piece films, I would venture the difference to be in the pacing and the overall presentation; the dialogue tends to be formal and thoughtful, lacking quips and “cuteness,” the spectacular cinematography lures you into its imagined interior: you can almost feel the snow, the fire’s warmth. And time spools out slowly between events, giving the viewer the space to recover, imitating, in my opinion, how time was probably experienced anyway back before our technological age: heavier, lengthier somehow, more packed with feeling, patience, even consideration of consequence. Nothing like today.
Although the Arikara attack on the fur traders early in the film was an uber-realistic, white-knuckle event, in my opinion the bear attack on DiCaprio’s character Glass was the eye-boggling winner as far as effects go. I mean, there’s not many ways in which I can say it really looked real. It really looked like a bear was attacking and almost killing a man.
But the irony is that the attack scene is what I was thinking about today in relationship not to cinematic artistry (which it was) or special effects mastery (which it was) or the edge-of-the-seat tension that it generated.
Unfortunately, I was thinking of it in relationship to Donald Trump, whom some people in the United States voted for president. The bear attack scene summarizes, for me, the election of Mr. Trump and also forecasts what is to come during his “administration.”
Because Leonardo’s character Glass is mauled not just in one heart-stopping sequence–slashed, thrown about, smashed, sliced open and left for dead—but as he lies on the forest floor writhing and wheezing and bleeding to death, the bear then returns and begins the whole dance all over again. It picks up the already-near-fatally-wounded Leonardo/Glass and punches and punctures and pulverizes him again. Glass is able to jam his knife in at the last minute, killing the bear, but at this point he is so drastically torn asunder, it’s a miracle that there’s any story to even tell after that.
That’s how I relate to recent and unfolding events in U.S. politics. I think it’s just beginning. We’re still going through the first run from the bear, not even the second. It still hasn’t even fully sunk in that a bear has swiped us with its paw, almost casually, but in the process already shattered our collar bone and splintered several ribs. And even in the future when/if we’re able to pull out our weapon and dispatch the out-of-control force that’s destroying everything in its path, we’ll be so ravaged at the end of it that I doubt we’ll even recognize ourselves.
In reality, the real Hugh Glass had not been holding a fiery grudge which drove him forward to seek revenge. In reality, Mr. Glass evidently only wanted his rifle back.
The onus was on the movie version, of course, to stir up a passion beyond the simple desire to recoup a firearm, thus Leonardo/Glass’s half-breed son being murdered and Tom Hardy’s character being somewhat less than honorable, greedy, and impatient for Leonardo/Glass to die. The fabricated passion fits the movie story; it just might be enough to drive a man, against all odds, to seek his own personal justice. And I think the fulfillment of that single-minded goal was ultimately fulfilling and cathartic for the viewing audience.
As for the rest of us outside of movie land who did not participate in aiding the rise of fascism in the form of a hedonistic, narcissistic, xenophobic hate-mongering multi-millionaire named Donald Trump, I think the passion to galvanize us, to move us forward, is already there and need not be fabricated to punch up the story line.
Greed, misunderstanding, lack of empathy, betrayal: The makings of a good Hollywood movie. The general state of man. Politics.
The thing we will hopefully have in common with Hugh Glass is that we will become revenants. If we’re lucky we’ll become people who, slit open and cleaved in two, despite the odds, the inexplicable and the incomprehensible, will return. From the dead zone our most recent “elected” leader would have us diving into, head first, without question. Still braying and bellowing from the pain. Because pain is a good wake-up call, a good reminder of what happened. What has happened before. What could easily happen again.