The Revenant - A New Way of Looking at An Eternal Struggle
By Jackson Markow
The Revenant, a Western-style historical drama about the journey and agony of Hugh Glass, a fur trader on the American frontier in the early 19th century, shows beautifully the struggle of a mountain man with a unique story trying to survive in some of the hardest situations imaginable and then surviving with a fierce determination to get his revenge.
Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a fur trader for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823. On an expedition in the mountains of what would become South Dakota, he and his party of one hundred men, led by General William Ashley, is attacked Arikara Warriors. A multitude of both furmen and Arikara are killed in the ensuing battle, and only a few, including Glass, are able to make it out alive. Soon after, though, Glass is hunting in a forest alone when a bear attacks and mauls him, leaving him nearly dead and paralysed. When the rest of his party finds him, they realize that he is very badly injured and that they will have to carry him back to Fort Kiowa on a stretcher. Captain Andrew Henry, the leader of their party, is unwilling to carry out Glass, so John Fitzgerald, Jim Bridger, and Glass’s half-Indian son Hawk stay with him to allow him to recover. Annoyed with Glass and thinking that he will only die anyway, Fitzgerald attempts to kill Glass but is stopped by Hawk. He kills Hawk and he and Bridger flee. Glass, heartbroken from the death of his son, is now motivated to drag himself back to Fort Kiowa to seek his revenge. In his travels, he slowly recovers, evading warring Arikara, stealing a horse from French furmen, and sharing bison meat with a friendly Indian. And when he makes it back alive, he soon sets out for a bloody fight and avenges his son, killing Fitzgerald.
Director Alejandro Iñárritu is able to build up this beautiful picture of the life of a man not quite like any other in his time or place. DiCaprio’s character is not just another fur trader killing beavers and growing the economy. By the virtue of having a Pawnee Indian wife and a half-Indian son, Hawk, he maintains an unusual place in his world of chaos and battle, being caught in a middle place between victim and victimizer. Throughout the film, the tension between the culture of the Indians and the battling whites is what both empowers Glass and breaks him down. In addition the juxtaposition between this and the harsh and relentless world he must struggle through to survive creates powerful questions in the viewer about America’s roots and how we came to be today. For instance, in one scene, where Glass has come upon a camp of French fur traders, he encounters a sign hung around the neck of an Indian corpse saying “Nous sommes tous sauvages”, meaning “We are all savages”. It brought to mind the question for me, and I think for many, that - who were the real savages here? And as the movie continues, the clash of cultures and the effect that it has had on both sides of the battle becomes more and more apparent and ingrained into the viewer’s conscience.
As for the visual side of the film, it was beautiful in a way never seen before. Iñárritu uses cinematic techniques never seen before to envelop you in the plot. In several scenes, Iñárritu uses long, sweeping one-shot sequences that capture you. When the Arikara Indians attack Glass’s party, the ensuing fight scene combines the best of excellent cinematography, seasoned actors, such as DiCaprio, Will Poulter, and Domhnall Gleeson, and beautiful natural scenery to paint a picture of how violent and rough the settling of Europeans in North America really was.
This is a film that one must compromise in order to truly enjoy. One must see it with an open mind, or else it will pry open your mind against your will. It is a film that, unless the viewer allows or has preconceived notions, forces the viewer to see the harsh reality of a world into which a man is thrown at the whim of fate and must fight for his life to restore order. It tells the story of a man who is neither the hero nor the villain, but simply must survive. And at this, The Revenant does a great job and I applaud it.