Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)
Glass is an interesting choice for the name of a man who doesn’t break, but it turns out it’s not a choice.
Hugh Glass was part of an expedition that went up the Missouri river, from South Dakota to Montana, on a fur-trading expedition in the early 1820s. He was attacked by a bear, left for dead by a man named Fitzgerald, survived, sought revenge. It’s all there. In real life, of course, the revenge isn’t as clean as in the movie. And it’s not clean in the movie.
“The Revenant” (meaning: one who has returned, particularly from the dead) is a shifting landscape of betrayal and revenge; it’s a movie you feel as much as see. In old westerns, arrows flew threw the air like toothpicks; here they have heft and force. The bear is fast, monstrous; you feel its weight as it smashes Leonardo DiCaprio’s face into the mud, and its hot breath literally fogs the camera. The power of the river current is overwhelming, the chill of the wind debilitating. It’s a palpable movie. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu could’ve called it, “The Unrelentant,” because it doesn’t stop.
It’s also gorgeously filmed, and one of the best movies of the year.
The turnin’ of the earth
It’s actually a collision of two westerns, isn’t it? The story is set in motion by Elk Dog (Duane Howard), the leader of the Arikara tribe, who is searching for his kidnapped daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o). That’s why the fur-trading expedition is attacked—mistakenly, it turns out, they had nothing to do with Powaqa—and why Glass and the men flee down the Missouri, then take to land. They’re pursued. In this way, Elk Dog is a Native American version of John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, in John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Ironic, given Ethan’s thoughts on the matter:
Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We'll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.
Glass’ story, meanwhile, is a western tale of revenge a la “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” He loses everything and becomes revenge personified; but he never becomes wish-fulfillment fantasy in the way Clint Eastwood does. He’s too broken; it’s all too awful.
In fleeing the Arikara, fur pelts—the whole point of the expedition—have to be left behind, and that doesn’t sit right with Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy); and in a backwoods Maryland accent so thick it makes Bain’s enunciation in “The Dark Knight Rises” seem as precise as John Houseman’s, he bitches, threatens, and casts aspersions on Glass and his half-breed son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). There’s a good line from Glass berating Hawk for his intemperance in native Pawnee: “They don’t hear you; they only see the color of your face.”
It’s a dirty world Inarritu recreates, but there’s something extra dirty about Fitzgerald. Once almost scalped, he now scalps. He complains about Indians stealing from the dead even as he does the same. He feels screwed, and is: After all that work and risk, we find he still owes the company store.
His most awful moment may be when he confronts Glass, rendered immobile and helpless by the bear attack, and offers to end his pain if he’ll only signal by blinking. It’s like making the signal breathing. Fitzgerald needs Glass to die so he can move on, but he wants permission and rigs the game. Or does he? We watch Glass’ helpless face, his eyes struggling not to blink; but then he seems to acquiesce. He closes them completely. Later, in their climactic struggle, Fitzgerald will bring this up. “You and me, we had a deal,” he says. But as Fitzgerald tries to suffocate Glass, and as Glass struggles, Hawk arrives, attacks Fitzgerald, and is killed himself. Then Glass is tossed into a hastily dug grave. “We buried him proper,” Fitzgerald says later. Everything the man touches turns to dishonor.
It’s a long road back for Glass, and Inarritu doesn’t allow him (or us) any cinematic shortcuts. We see him go through animal stages: crawling on all fours; eating small birds, and raw fish, and liver. It’s almost a triumph when he can walk upright again, a man again, but a man with one thing in mind: revenge. Which is its own burden. At one point, Glass is saved by a lone Pawnee, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), trying to reconnect with his tribe, who tells him, “Revenge is in the creator’s hands, not man’s.” Glass will think back on this as he finally has his hands around Fitzgerald’s throat. It’s the high ground, but he—and we—don’t want it. Instead, he takes a middle ground. He lets the current, and the Arikara, take Fitzgerald.
There are still honorable men in this world: Hikuc; Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the expedition leader; Bridger (Will Poulter, quite good), Fitzgerald’s unwilling partner, who is not witness to Fitzgerald’s crimes, and remains haunted by their actions. Each man surprised me a little. The modern western gives us the cackling and the profane, suggesting this was the norm in a harsh, lawless world. These guys seem honorable despite that world. Or maybe because of it. To distinguish themselves from it. To keep it at a distance.
Of course, they don’t end well. Capt. Henry counsels Glass against pursuing Fitzgerald but accompanies him anyway; he’s scalped for this trouble. And Hikuc? After saving Glass’ life, he’s strung up by French forces—the ones who kidnapped Powaqa in the first place—who hang a sign around his neck: On est tous des sauvages. “We are all savages.” Not quite. The savages survive.
Light as a principle of survival
Nature may be the most savage of all. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film both the grandeur and horror of nature, along with the smallness of man (both ways) against that landscape. In a great article in Film Comment, David Thomson says the use of natural light in the film “addresses mankind’s relationship with nature before electricity.” He call it “a principle of survival,” which is exactly right. So often in this movie light means life, or a chance at it. It bursts through, and we’re grateful.
Near the end, after Glass lets the Arikara take Fitzgerald, he kneels on all fours by the river, spent, as the Indians pass. They don’t kill him—he freed Powaqa from the French—but they, and she, are not exactly grateful. She views him imperiously from above. That’s the feel of nature, too. If it views us, that’s how it views us.
Some of my favorite moments have nothing to do with the plot: the avalanche in the distance after Capt. Henry’s death; Glass and Hikuc catching snowflakes on their tongue. Is it too improbable? Too much? Maybe. When it was over, I was exhausted. I thought, “Beautiful, but I doubt if I’ll ever want to see it again.” It’s a day later and I want to see it again.