The Revenant – Review

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The Revenant is a tense and gritty period drama set along the frontier territories of South Dakota. Based on historical events in the early 19th century and the novel adaptation by Michael Punke, it outlines the partially fictionalized tale of the veteran frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass. Mauled by a bear and abandoned by his fellows, Glass nevertheless survives, endures against all the odds and vengefully pursues the two men who left him for dead.

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leonardo-dicaprio-revenantDirected by Alexjandro Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams, Birdman), we’re presented with an unforgiving and brutal perspective of the North American frontier in a manner that few other films have achieved. Eschewing the usual romanticism of the old west, the moral tale is one where all are equal in the presence of an unyielding natural world. While our historical impressions of the influx of settlers is a retrospective luxury we can apply at our discretion, the film does well to remind us of the sentiment of the day; uncertainty. Uncertain alliances between the trappers and local Indians. The fickle elements. A desperation as both the Indians and invaders try to understand the new world, that is, the new circumstances they both find themselves in.

leo-wifeHistorically, Hugh Glass is said to have married a Pawnee woman and the film reveals the torturous loss of her and Glass’s consequent rebellion against the fledgling United States government. Being an expert trapper and landsman, he had an understanding of the land that many of his white brethren did not. Additionally, as father to his biracial son Hawk, we see the cruel love he must extol to prepare his progeny for the reality of so-called frontier co-existence. With both of them straddling two cultures, Glass imparts the harsh reality of the nature of prejudice, racism, the ignorance of bigotry, and most importantly, how to survive it.

“As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm. And you stand in front of a tree. If you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.”

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In many ways this dynamic reflects the film itself, of the land and those who reside within, in that one can move in sync with the surrounding environment, or perish at the hands of it. Nature takes no prisoners to those who don’t respect its ways.

Iñárritu uses the environment to great effect, emphasizing the natural rhythm of existence in this often challenging land. Most camera shots sweep almost casually across scenes of abject violence, asking the viewer to be at peace with the barbarity of life that modern existence has since clothed in civilization. Wolves work together to drag down a wild bison. The arrow from the bow of an attacking Arikira Indian embeds itself in the throat of a trapper. Clouds sweep across the shoulders of a huge mountain range. An avalanche drowns tens of trees in tons of snow.

279258As we are reminded, Hugh Glass’s actions as the revenant (from the French revenir – to return) to bring justice against those who abandoned him, appears to perhaps be almost superfluous to the theme itself, similar to films by Terrence Malick. That said, why is he so enraged and driven when he is left to die by what appears to be a pragmatic decision by his betrayers? Perhaps because they tore from him the things that kept him human in this maelstrom of nature. They removed the parts of himself: his son, that which was his humanity, his weapons, that were his defense and tools to perpetuate himself in this unforgiving wilderness. As when we spend enough time in nature, we become as it is – in the words of fantasy author David Gemmell – not evil, but cruel, perhaps realistic. Ironically, to take revenge on those that stripped him of his humanity would be to retain his identity, in his mind, and certainly not represent an act of evil.

the_revenant_SD2_758_426_81_s_c1Ultimately this is to no avail, as in nature as it is in society. ‘For every honor there are a thousand heroes, unsung and unremembered’ – and as the beautiful, stunning and pitiless images of nature we observe, the spectrum of human emotion counts for little in the end. The film shows both the futility and value of kindness, shows how humans can exhibit compassion but also anger and pointless violence. The soundtrack underlines this – swelling orchestral grandeur matched with slices of synthetic sound that embellish moments of terror.

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This is a glorious and complicated art house film. Having read both the book, and studied the history, I can say that is a good example of how a movie can deviate and still be superb. Artistically, comparisons can be made to The New World by Malick and Michael Mann’s adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, yet this work is notably different in its ability to keep us both grounded and aloft in the savagery and beauty, whereas the others seem steeped in one or the other.  Iñárritu locks us in with the detail and intensity, he releases us with the visions of soaring majesty. It’s a very much needed counter point to the saccharine and chronically unchallenging fare of Hollywood in a Tumblr-esque world. America needed this story to remind herself of her tenuous and tainted roots.

And who knows, maybe DiCaprio will finally get his Oscar. I think he more than deserves it.

The Revenant was released on December 25th in most theaters.


 

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