Ruminations about ‘The Revenant’

There was a time when people feared being buried prematurely. Sometimes, it was a matter of innocent mistake. Other times it was a matter of villainy. The latter is the case with Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant.” Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the movie takes us on a literally gut-wrenching journey through the cold winter wilderness of Montana and South Dakota and through the chilling hearts of trappers and Native Americans. The film won three awards at the 73rd annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 10, 2016. This is a hard movie to watch.

The year is 1823. Slavery has yet to be abolished. A hunting party celebrates the bloody slaughter of hundreds of elk and other animals, more animals than the men could possibly need for food. They only want the pelts and the land is wet with blood and thick with flies. The Native Americans aren’t friendly toward this excursion which is under the protection of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and guided by Hugh Glass (DiCaprio).

With Glass is his half-Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a young man scarred a fire. Through flashbacks, we learn that Hawk’s mother died when white soldiers attacked the village and burned the homes down. There’s a rumor that Glass can remains in the wilderness because he killed a soldier. Glass is acutely aware that his son exists in a sort of purgatory. Hawk has not status in the world of white men. His village has been destroyed and he belongs to no tribe.

The hunting party is attacked by the Arikara. Some are too greedy and attempt to save the heavy packs of pelts and end up dying. Others make it back to the transport raft and slowly travel down the river. Glass warns that the Arikara will follow them down the river and eventually kill them all. A plan is made to travel overland to the fort. A few men take the boat down the river and then fail to bail out as planned. This is not a unified team and the military discipline is lacking.

After the first night of camping, Glass goes off scouting into a lusciously green part of the wilderness and comes upon a Grizzly bear. Location is everything. Glass is between a mother sow and her two cubs. The mother savagely attacks Glass. This was a time before teddy bears and cute Disney cartoons. The CGI is convincing and frighteningly horrific. You wonder how crazy someone like Timothy Treadwell (“Grizzly Man”) must have been to wander so closely to those strong jaws. When you think it’s over it’s not. Glass doesn’t play dead, but crawls over to his gun and finally kills the mother who falls upon him.

The rest of the hunting party find him unconscious. He’s sewn up and taken on a roughly hewn along the trail until the party come upon areas where it is too steep. Still in grave condition, Glass seems near death, unable to speak or move, only his eyes remain open and alert. One man, John Fitzgerald, suggests a mercy killing. Henry can’t bring himself to kill Glass but offers a reward to the men who stay behind for Glass’ final moments and to give him a decent burial. Hawk, Fitzgerald and the young Jim Bridger stay behind.

Fitzgerald survived a Native American scalping him and is not a patient man. While Bridger and Hawk are away from the camp, he asks Glass to give him a sign,to blink if he is okay with being smothered to death. Glass holds out, but eventually blinks. As Fitzgerald attempts to kill him, Hawk returns and is murdered and dumped a short distance away. When Bridger returns, Fitzgerald convinces him that to save their own lives, they must flee. Arikara are too close by.

Glass is not dead and first waits for his son to die before beginning his trek across the ice and snow, crawling. Along the way, he will meet French trappers and Native Americans. One Native American saves him but Glass finds the man killed by the French trappers nearby. The trappers have hung a sign on the murdered man: “On est tous sauvage” or “They are all heathens.” The French trappers have caused the attacks of one band of Arikara on the white men because they have abducted the daughter of one of the leaders.  The Arikara don’t differentiate between one white man and another, from English-speaking or French-speaking. Some of the white men don’t differentiate either.

The woman, Powaqa, has been raped by the French-speaking men and Glass saves her, but they go their separate ways.  At the campsite,  Glass accidentally leaves behind his water canteen and the survivor of the following Native American attack on the French trappers takes that canteen to the fort. A search party is sent out to look for Hawk who only Fitzgerald knows is dead.

This leads the rescue of Glass and eventually to a confrontation between Glass, Henry and Fitzgerald.  Henry wants justice. Glass wants revenge. During his journey to the fort, Glass sees his dead son and joins him at the ruins of a church. Glass also sees his wife. We are left to decide if these are real spiritual forces or Glass’ hallucinations. Glass comes to understand the nature of revenge. A parent’s rampage was the start of the killing that Glass was caught up in and we see two different fathers react to crimes against their children.

“The Revenant” is a bloody spectacle that juxtaposes beautiful winter scenery with the struggle of one man to survive. The complexities of the Wild West are touched upon. The Native Americans are not all good and neither are the white men. This isn’t cowboys against “injuns” but individuals on the thinnest edge of society that the thin layer of civilization easily cracks, leaving individuals on the brink of falling through to their deaths and exposing selfish fears, wants and needs.

The real Hugh Glass lived until 1833. He did survive a Grizzly attack and was left for dead during General Ashley’s expedition of 1823. Bridger was 19. Fitzpatrick was only a few years older at 23. They reportedly left Glass for dead after being attacked by the Arikara. It took six weeks for Glass to get to the outpost and he was aided by Native Americans along the way. He would again meet Bridger and Fitzpatrick and left them both live. Glass continued to live as a fur trapper and was killed by the Arikara near the Yellowstone River in 1833.

At the Golden Globes, director Iñárritu expressed backstage that the production had taken great efforts to get the authenticity right from the view of the Native Americans, commenting on the complexities. There is a feeling of respect for the Native Americans as well as the brutal natural world. The bear attack sets the tone for the whole movie. Iñárritu commented,  “It took a lot of months. I interviewed a crazy guy who wrote a book about bear attacks in Montana.” The man collected information about over 100 bear attacks. “He told me so much about it, I was absolutely shocked about how really mother bear can feed her cubs and that’s it. It is a very natural thing, right, a mother feeding her kids, as we do every day, with chickens or with cows or with fish. But this time we are the prey.” Iñárritu also credited DiCaprio, adding, ” Leo obviously went through a very hard, physical demand to do this. And everything possible from the early cinema days to the most sophisticated CGI things, I use it in order to have an impact by and witness something they will never witness in real life.”

DiCaprio commented at the Golden Globes, “I am not supposed to talk in great detail about how that was done. Alejandro has watched over 100 different bear attacks, but what he creates in that sequence is almost virtual reality and awakens other senses. I think people are talking about it for good reason. It is going to go down in the history of cinema as an amazing visceral, tactile sequence that makes people feel like they are there. Yes, it was incredibly difficult to do. We rehearsed for weeks beforehand on just that sequence.”

DiCaprio commented backstage that “Alejandro shot this whole film in natural life in nine months in very rough conditions. I think people honestly want to see that type of cinema. There’s very little CGI in this movie. It is used very sparingly. Other than that, it is us immersed in this world. That type of unique cinema is something I want to see more of in this industry. I want to see people stepping up to the plate to take chances on movies like this because I am just a fan of film. So the fact that the film won tonight and was acknowledged, all the better. Because we want to see more films like this coming out of the Hollywood studio systems. It is harkening back to an era in the ’70s where the director was king. To me cinema is a director’s medium. And if they have a unique and strong vision, people should stand behind them. That’s what was done in this movie, and that’s why it turned out the way it did.”

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