The Revenant (2015)

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I have mixed feelings about this movie, a visceral and epic story of survival in the frigid wilds of 19th century South Dakota. Hollywood and ‘inspired by a true story’ make me wary. Usually it means notions of heroism have been cranked up to 11 and drama has been fabricated to keep us 21st century viewers engaged. Add Leonardo DiCaprio and, at nearly three hours long, you know this has Academy Award intentions. But. This is directed by Alejandro Iñárritu, the Mexican director of Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros and Birdman, so it will never be ordinary.

The story is that of Hugh Glass, real life fur trader in the early 1800s who was part of a group attacked by Arikara, the survivors fleeing for the mountains. Glass, while searching for food, was mauled by a grizzly bear and was so injured, he was left for dead by his companions with no food nor weapons. This much is assumed to be true, although the details of the story have grown over the centuries with each retelling.

The movie sticks pretty much to the facts. Pretty much. It does a good job of bringing alive the sparseness and danger of life in those times, particularly for those usurping land and resources from the indigenous peoples. It is winter and we feel the coldness and the isolation, the difficult decisions that need to be made to ensure survival. This is quite a brutal movie, though I never felt it was gratuitously bloody. Iñárritu films predominantly with a wide angle lens which allows us to be right up close to the action. We see the violence at close quarters, the fog of breath on the lens, the flecks of blood. The cinematography is beautiful but there are no sunlit plains, this is the cool monochrome beauty of winter, of ice and pelt and sky.

The fabrication is to give Glass a reason for vengeance and it’s an interesting addition, I think, in what it says about male archetypes in 2015. I couldn’t help think of the Liam Neeson movie The Grey when I watched this. They are very different movies – The Grey pitches a man against wolves in the Alaskan wilderness and manages to rather ludicrously subvert most rules of nature and common sense in order to create drama. The Revenant feels more authentic, although there is a sense that this is a tall tale. Glass seems to survive on his indomitable spirit alone.

What the two films have in common is the core theme of a grieving man finding hidden superhuman strength as he battles for physical and emotional survival. A revenant is a dead spirit that comes back to haunt the living and Glass is given a reason to need to find his way back, both physically and emotionally. That this is done through violence and by facing death is an interesting premise in what it says about how we see masculinity today.

I’m tempted to say this is a blokes’ film, although I don’t like this kind of characterisation. What I mean is that it didn’t seem like it was speaking to me. It didn’t have a prayer of passing the Bechdel test as there were barely any women in it and they didn’t have any dialogue to speak of. There was no visceral thrill for me in seeing Glass battle and survive as his purpose, the revenge that drove him, seemed one-dimensional. And again we focus on white men. Yes there are some indigenous people in this film but they don’t have much of a voice, perpetuating the ‘noble savage’ stereotype, perhaps Hollywood’s idea of an improvement on the marauding ‘injun’ stereotype.

I think this will be a popular film and I would recommend it if you want to see some mainstream fare that steps a little to the left. And you’re a bloke.

Bechdel test – fail
3 stars

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