January 19, 2016
“The Revenant,” based on the true story of Hugh Glass, an 1820’s tracker and hunter in the Northwest Territory, is a frightening yet uplifting and visually stunning film by director Alejandro Inarritu, another masterpiece for the artist who created last year’s “Birdman” as well as “21 Grams,” “Babel,” and “Amores Perros.”
Glass, accompanied by his young Pawnee Indian son Hawk (they have lost a wife and mother to a massacre by French fur traders) lead a hunting party of soldiers from a fort along the Missouri River in the Northwest Territory. The party is attacked by Indians who are searching for a stolen daughter of the tribe. Their escape and journey back to the fort is a nightmare of terror, bitter winter and hunger. Ultimately, the men turn on each other.
Glass, out scouting ahead of the troops, is nearly mauled to death by a grizzly bear. When the men discover him partially-eaten but alive, Hawk and two troopers, a psychopath named Fitzgerald and a young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter and the master actor Tom Hardy), are assigned to stay with Glass until he dies. In short order Fitzgerald murders Hawk, leaves Glass for dead and bullies Bridger into leaving the scene.
Glass survives and endures unspeakable hardships, ultimately saved by a Pawnee Indian. And since this depicts the heart of darkness, one would be hard pressed to become emotionally attached any character in this film.
This is how the West must have been, not the set of “clean” John Wayne movies with archetypes of noble, God-fearing white people rather than real characters, but depraved Europeans wantonly slaughtering Indians and animals. This film depicts our national character, which is with us to this day.
There is an unforgettable image of the Pawnee who saved Glass, hanging from a tree with a wooden sign around his neck which reads: “Savage.” While nearby, the French fur trappers who killed the man, drunkenly rape Indian women, play fiddle music and dance.
The photography of “The Revenant” is beyond beautiful, depicting Edenic scenes of wilderness and waterfalls and frozen landscape. The winter snow scenes had to be shot in Argentina, as there was no snow in South Dakota and Montana during the filming. (I wish I had seen the film on a much larger screen.) The scenery is as overwhelming as outer space, as viewing the Milky Way on a dark night. One is awestruck, only to be drawn back to the savage people, the chaos and the horror, and the abject cruelty.
A woman sitting in front of me laughed through the entire film. I asked her why. “It’s not real,” was the response.
This morning, I went to get coffee. It was fifteen degrees. As I was leaving my house, thinking of Hugh Glass naked in the frozen Missouri River, I threw off my coat and drove off. My hands and feet were numb by the time I got home. We have evolved to jelly, to softness of body but fully retaining the memory of our dark past.
Watching this film, one knows with certainty that God, if that deity exists, did not create humans in its image. Or: God is a savage and horrifying truth.
Paradoxically, “The Revenant” is a great work of art, a purely human construct. Yet: there are no lessons to be learned. There is the truth, and the truth will not set us free.