The Revenant is a $135 million film that runs for 156 minutes, has taken box offices worldwide by storm and gathered armfuls of awards nominations. In virtually every sense it is a ‘big picture’ that can’t fail to impress the viewer. But I wonder what it all adds up to? I found the film to be visually stunning and I recognise the extraordinary lengths to which the cast and crew must have gone in the most difficult filming conditions. It’s a film to watch and think, yes it’s all on the screen and it’s a great technical achievement. Unfortunately though, as a film narrative it seems to me to fall short.
I should confess that I’m not familiar with the films of Alejandro González Iñárittu. The subjects of his previous films haven’t attracted me apart from Biutiful (Mexico/Spain 2010) which I hope to see at some point. I’m not, therefore, interested in any kind of auteurist study. I came to The Revenant because I thought it must be a Western and I read the film in that context. My interest in the Western is in terms of both its relationship with American history and its universal themes which have been taken up by filmmakers around the world. In my conception there is a narrow definition of the Western repertoire that locates narratives in the uncharted territory of the western United States between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the ‘closing of the frontier’ in the late 1890s. A much broader definition of the Western covers the whole period of ‘American’ history from the first contacts between settlers and indigenous peoples right up to the present day and ranges north into Canada and south into Mexico. Contemporary Westerns do, however, have some kind of geographical and/or cultural connection to the 19th century ‘frontier’. Within these broad definitions, various sub-genres or fluid repertoires can be discerned. The Revenant is a ‘survivalist Western’ – man versus the natural environment – and a ‘frontier Western’ focusing on the upper Missouri River in the 1820s when the huge territories of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) were still being ‘absorbed’ by the US. The new territories represented a third of the total land area of the US in the 19th century and the two big issues were the resistance of the various indigenous groups and the commercial interests of British and French trappers and fur traders. The story of The Revenant is based on what happened to a real character, Hugh Glass in 1823. This was in turn used for a fictionalised account by Michael Punke published in 2002 and it was this that prompted the adaptation by Iñárittu and Mark L. Smith.
A fundamental aspect of Iñárittu’s approach appears to be to ‘tell’ his audience as little as possible. We aren’t told the date of the story nor where it takes place. Instead we are required to think through what we see. We note first that the ‘Americans’ have flintlock muskets and pistols – placing the story earlier than the 1840s. The names of some of the Native American peoples are mentioned fairly early – as is the presence of French fur traders. The Americans are slaughtering animals for pelts and they have to get them back to a fort. The leader of the group is a quasi-military figure. Is he employed by one of the trading companies? Later we will hear mention of the Missouri but at first we have no real idea where we are. (The film was mostly shot in Canada, but some scenes were shot in Argentina when the snows left the Canadian mountains.) Does it matter where and when the action takes place? Possibly not, but Iñárittu goes to such lengths to ensure ‘authenticity’ that there seems to be a contradiction here. It would have been simple enough to include a title saying simply “Upper Missouri River: 1823” and perhaps “American and French fur traders compete for pelts” or something like that. On the other hand, with no context, the film narrative could have been solely about survival.
As it is, the story becomes incomprehensible. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) survives through miraculous escapes, severely wounded but able to withstand immersion in freezing waters. He leaps over cliffs etc. and is able to jump onto a horse despite being barely able to walk and to fire his flintlock pistol twice in quick succession with remarkable accuracy (and no reloading). None of this would matter in a Western ‘adventure’, but cumulatively such feats undermine the seriousness of the existential struggle for survival. If it is going to be a ‘man against the wilderness’ narrative, we need something else – a sense of what Glass is feeling and thinking. I’m not sure we get this – instead we are asked to focus on the idea of revenge. Glass is motivated by what one man in particular (the Tom Hardy character) did in leaving him to die (and much more). This is the plot line that prompts the film’s title. Glass is not just the man who ‘comes back’ in the literal meaning of the title, but also the mythical avenger who returns from the dead (also an established meaning of ‘revenant’). There are in fact a couple of fantasy sequences when Glass dreams about his Pawnee wife but otherwise the potential of ‘revenant’ in its more mythological sense is not exploited. Caught between survivalist and revenge narratives, I felt that the film was incoherent and the final section of the revenge narrative was tedious. This is a very violent film and by the end of 150 minutes I’d already had too much. The ending does, however, have one saving grace in the re-appearance of a group of Arikara ‘Indians’. For me, the various indigenous groups and individuals represented in the film are its major bonus and I was struck by what one unnamed reviewer suggested was a nod to John Ford’s The Searchers, reversing the structure of that film’s search with a tribal chief leading a group of braves on a mission to find his daughter who has been abducted by French trappers.
Despite all the potential, The Revenant fails as a Western narrative. I recently watched a TV showing of Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the Sidney Pollack-Robert Redford ‘survivalist Western’ which is equally ‘epic’ in its vision but more coherent in execution. I’m also intrigued to have been reminded of the Richard C. Sarifian version of the Glass story, Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris. Harris had already appeared in A Man Called Horse (1970), a film in which an Englishman is captured by the Sioux and becomes a warrior and leader. With two remakes for this film, the early 1970s saw a cycle of films with similar elements to The Revenant. Iñárittu tried to place Glass’s story in a wider context with the ‘opening up’ of the frontier to trapping and trading. I did at some point think of films as different as McCabe and Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate – films about the much later influence of American capitalism. Again, there was a film to be made about the early period of capitalism on the frontier (and racist exploitation) but The Revenant can’t fully accommodate it.
I mustn’t give the impression that I disliked the film completely. Most of the time I was engaged by the story, even when I wanted to critique it, and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding. The opening action sequence matches his celebrated sequences from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and his mountain vistas and long shot compositions are indeed ‘breathtaking’. I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate the music score written and arranged by Alva Noto and Ryûichi Sakamoto, but I was impressed by the range of pieces selected. I must also say something about the performances. I’ve never been a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and I don’t really understand his appeal. Here he is asked to do a great deal without dialogue and to express himself from inside a mountain of skins and coats and a large beard. By all accounts it was a tough shoot and he put himself through it to perform the role, but is that enough to win all those awards? Tom Hardy (who does seem very versatile as an actor) is as effective as DiCaprio but I was equally impressed by Domhnall Gleeson who has been excellent in films as different as Ex Machina and Brooklyn in 2015 and manages here to be convincing as the trappers’ leader.
Alejandro González Iñárittu’s early films used scripts written by Guillermo Arriaga who in 2005 wrote one of the best contemporary Westerns – The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. Perhaps with Arriaga and Jones he could have made a great Western from The Revenant?