Why The Revenant Rubbed People the Wrong Way
I remember watching the trailer for The Revenant for the first time and thinking: ‘This will be the best movie in the history of mankind!’ After finally seeing it, I wasn’t the slightest bit disappointed, despite being aware that it is, of course, flawed. It grabbed my attention instantly and did not let go til the end, left me breathless numerous times – an amazing, exciting ride throughout. But to my surprise, it turns out a lot of people have a problem with this film. Again and again, as more people saw it and the reviews were rolling in, I kept hearing that it’s dumb; a bonehead movie – all he does is grunt, scream and drag himself across various sceneries, it’s agony porn, etc. I also can’t remember another example of a movie being so universally criticized as unrealistic. I immediately found that interesting and I just couldn’t understand why the majority of the people who watched the movie seemed displeased, angered even, by the story. Some were provoked to the point of outrage, declaring the film is just plain dumb. Considering my reaction to the film was completely different, I was intrigued to find out whether I missed something. So I went and saw it again and loved it all over again (actually even more the second time around), all the while catching a glimpse of what was so irritating to everybody about this movie, which is what I will try to explore in this review.
Trappers gonna trap. Photo: 20th Century Fox
In short, The Revenant is about a trapper expedition gone seriously wrong. The movie opens with a flashback, cuts to the protagonist Hugh Glass brooding over the tragedy of losing his wife. The audience is introduced to his son (a half-Native, also serving as a constant reminder of the deceased wife, to the hero and to the audience) whom Glass is protective of, naturally. We also get to know the antagonist Fitzgerald (played by the consistently fun to watch Tom Hardy) who is prejudiced and wary of the half-Native boy, also naturally. Back at the trapper installment, without warning, the expedition is under attack by a Native tribe and everything falls apart. After the loss of many lives and precious pelts, the few remaining trappers continue on foot to another camp. On the way, while the others are resting, Glass is scouting the area and comes across the cutest little baby bears and instantly knows he’s screwed. A brutal mama bear attack ensues; Glass barely survives (my pick for most ironic criticism of The Revenant is that the bear attack looked horrible and was, of course, utterly unrealistic. The same people who felt that the anguish and agony of the protagonist was just too much, even referring to it as ‘verging on snuff’, would only be satisfied if a real grizzly was let loose to headbutt, stomp and slap Leonardo DiCaprio around like a ragdoll).
Of course, now, in his demolished state, he is a huge inconvenience for the rest of the party. They drag him around with them for a bit, but figure he’s gonna die anyway so long story short, in his horrendous condition, Glass is abandoned, while Fitzgerald demonstrates to us why he is the antagonist (he really needed to do something extreme because, up to then, despite being blatantly racist and seeming kinda emotionally unstable with the whole bug-eyed half-scalped look going on, Fitzgerald managed to be pretty relatable and even made some valid arguments which seemed completely understandable at that point in the plot). Thus the stage is set and we are led into the second half of the movie - the revenge part, where Glass hunts down the men who wronged him in an indescribably cruel way. Sound familiar? Of course it does, we’ve all watched different versions of this story a million times before. From Braveheart to Kill Bill to Oldboy, revenge is a very common plot driving tool, it’s even a genre on it’s own. But why did it rub people the wrong way so much this time?
Hardy arms himself anticipating a savage horde of fangirls. Photo: 20th Century Fox
I think it’s because The Revenant is a curious, rare case of a film which had the full intention of being both a mainstream blockbuster and a thought-provoking film packed with existential, religious and pantheistic symbolism throughout. In a way, it’s really similar to The Gladiator (but much, much more serious in its themes, in my view). It seems you need to choose how you’re going to approach The Revenant – are you gonna watch an action movie? You know, lots of unrealistic action sequences, very black & white, good guy – bad guy, by the end you even have the final showdown, with the players taunting each other with one liners. Or are you gonna watch a poetic film asking big philosophical questions about the nature of Man, God, even the nature of Nature itself, clearly heavily influenced by the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick? Here’s the thing – you can’t choose. The film won’t allow it. It has to be both at the same time, and it manages through the majority of the film, but towards the end it gets sort of confusing and the dualism of the film’s intentions starts to really take its toll. The viewer begins to struggle and has to cling to some of the sentiments he has experienced in other scenes in order to maintain a positive impression in accordance with his own preferences and sensibility. The viewer has to decide how he/she likes it, like a steak.
Also, the marketing approach chosen to hype the movie ultimately backfired, in my opinion. Tales of a grueling shoot (DiCaprio almost died, ate raw bison, the whole crew was freezing and struggling for months, etc.) combined with the story being marketed as inspired by true events hurt the viewing experience in an odd way, because at times these marketing ploys would intrude your brain while viewing, convincing you that it’s real, it happened, DiCaprio is really in pain, which naturally makes you want to resist the movie a little bit because you’re smart and you know it’s still just a movie.
For me the weakest point of the film, which also perfectly shows what I was trying to describe before, is the introduction to the final showdown between Glass and Fitzgerald. They’re about to fight in true animalistic fashion, no guns (unless you count Tom Hardy’s massive biceps). At this point, Glass has symbolically become the bear which brutally attacked him. With its powerful claws around his neck and wrapped in its massive fur hide, he has practically become a force of Nature himself, his quest for revenge symbolically blessed by God (reminiscent of the Old Testament story of Jacob, who wrestled with God in the desert). And then, as all of this is sinking in, they suddenly start verbalizing some of the themes of the film, explaining and awkwardly reminding each other why they’re about to brawl. I swear, I thought Hardy and DiCaprio were about to interview each other, still in character: ‘So Glass, first off, what did you learn from your suffering? How do you feel about revenge now, on the brink of exacting it? And Fitzgerald, describe why you turned out to be so horrible? What did you just not get that I, Hugh Glass, did?’
Another example is the scene in which the Arikara chief Elkdog (who spends the whole movie wandering into scenes and asking if his daughter is there) is accused of stealing animal pelts to trade with French settlers. To this he responds, ‘You all have stolen everything from us.’ No need to explain the historical context, this message could have been conveyed through acting and framing. These vocalizations feel forced, as if the director did not have faith in either the audience or himself which is perfectly understandable when you take into account the essentially hollow nature of what Iñárritu chose to be the fuel to Hugh Glass’s fire – revenge. It really did seem that the film itself got insecure about the primary motive of the protagonist’s quest, realizing just when he is about to achieve his goal that it is empty, a goal with no reward. What surprisingly accentuated this realization for me is the true, ever present star of the film – cold, cruel, magnificent nature in all its beauty. The Revenant captures it flawlessly. The wilderness will leave you awestruck and will emphasize how a human’s story of love, death and retribution has no place here – there is simply no room for church in the wild. Opposed to the sheer magnificence of an ancient forest, a roaring river, human affairs and ethics are nothing. This is not something The Revenant is unaware of, this message was conveyed beautifully many times in the film through Glass’s journey, but it overpowers the plot. I think the audience senses this and finds a tale driven by themes of morality ridiculous amidst the beautiful and terrifying wild frontiers filmed so skillfully. Maybe this could have been avoided by simply altering the protagonists motivation, having him desperately, relentlessly driven to gain something, rather than agonizingly ride, crawl, swim and run to fulfill a quest which ultimately leaves him an irreparably damaged, lost man.
DiCaprio discovering how hypothermia elevates the acting craft.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
The Revenant never seems to proudly be what it actually is – a spectacle. The film itself seems to be resisting this definition, constantly interrupting the flow with more symbols, more drumming and panic, more social and political commentary. A film this rich seems like a hybrid at times; it’s a thriller, a horror, a western, a poem, even a documentary (with the bears breath fogging the camera and blood splashing on the lense). Despite being perhaps a little too convoluted and exhausting (you’re gonna need to take a nap once it’s finished), I found The Revenant to be an unforgettable and bold piece of cinema, set in the most beautiful, surreal landscape, which in its vastness turned out not to be big enough for peaceful coexistence. Every scene is incredibly ambitious, the effort put into every frame is palpable. It wasn’t perfect and that should be fine, but this time it curiously turned out that the intense marketing campaign combined with the directors slight preoccupation with thematic imagery created a perfect storm. The film, as it turns out, is too smart and self aware for its simple plot and the general audience too smart to have fun and be entertained.