I’ve only seen two films by Alejandro González Iñárritu: this one and the previous one, Birdman. I loved them both, but none of his other films has interested me whatsoever, for some reason. Anyway, it’s hard to see much similarity between Birdman and The Revenant, other than the grotesque closeups, the probing, extemporaneous feeling of the camerawork (same cinematographer for both films, Emmanuel Lubezki), and a somewhat mystical feel to the proceedings. Oh yes, and floating people! It is a completely immersive action-adventure film that seems to be constantly on the move in a very flowing way, like a torrent of cold, invigorating water, but it doesn’t attempt to create the artificial sense of one long continuous take like Birdman did. For all the feeling of immediacy, it’s also very beautiful, and even the landscapes feel very intimate — just the way he shoots upward through the trees into the sky creates a vertiginous feeling of being there. The landscape shots don’t exactly create a feeling of peacefulness, but they do create rests in the rhythm where you can catch your breath.
Much has been made of how this supposedly real-life story about the historical mountain man, Hugh Glass, actually strays from what’s known about him in significant ways. Some people have gone so far as to say that this is a Hollywood betrayal of the real story, traducing facts for the sake of action spectacle. A typical example of this criticism is Irwin Jerome’s review, “Bastardized History: the True Odyssey of Hugh Glass vs ‘The Revenant'” published by Counterpunch. The rest of my review is going to include SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS as I address some of these criticisms, because I think Jerome is completely misreading the film, although in a way that allows me to expound on what I think is a better reading. First of all, Jerome complains that although Glass did live with the Pawnees, he never married a Pawnee woman or fathered a son with her, so the existence of the son in the movie is a falsehood and inauthentic. True enough, but Jerome thinks the son only exists in the story to be murdered “for the purpose of pandering to yet more sensationalized, senseless murder and violence to sell more movie tickets.” It’s interesting to me that Jerome doesn’t grapple at all with the other inauthentic character here — Glass’s Pawnee wife — who is seen throughout the film advising him, for example, that the strength of a tree is not in the trunk but in the roots. These two characters are inserted into the story for reasons completely different from what Jerome supposes.
First of all, it gives Glass a reason to survive beyond the desire for revenge for the crime of leaving him to die. He is in fact motivated by the love for his son and wife. It may not be authentic, but it isn’t pandering to senseless murder and violence; it’s pandering to feelings of love for one’s wife and child. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, it shows that Glass has a connection to the Indians, and particularly the Pawnee, and this creates a contrast with the other characters in the movie who are almost all racists, particularly Fitzgerald, who was half-scalped by an Indian and perhaps understandably hates them for it. The distinction between Glass and his fellow white men may be more liberal pandering, but in story terms it creates an important distinction: again, he survives the mauling by the bear and the premature burial not just because of his lust for revenge, but because his friendliness with the Pawnee and ability to speak the language eventually means that a wandering Pawnee man, whose family and tribe were wiped out by Sioux, agrees to take care of him and actually uses Indian medicine to cure the wounds from the mauling that are starting to kill him. He wouldn’t survive without his connection to the Pawnee.
Perhaps Jerome’s most bizarre reading is that the fact that Glass chose not to kill Fitzgerald in real life shows us that “forgiveness can ultimately transcend revenge.” Jerome himself explains that the reason that Glass didn’t kill Fitzgerald is that Fitzgerald had meanwhile enlisted in the US Army, so murdering him would mean that Glass himself would be executed by the US Army. I’m not seeing the forgiveness or transcendence there, just a pragmatic bit of self-preservation. Also, despite the bloody knife fight between Glass and Fitzgerald at the climax of the film, Glass doesn’t actually kill him in the movie either, but rather tosses him in the river, which carries him to the members of the Indian tribe that have been trailing the white trappers throughout the film, because some other white trappers had kidnapped and raped the chief’s daughter, and these Indians kill Fitzgerald. I’m not sure this part of the story fits with the part about Glass’s connection to the Pawnee (these other Indians are from a different tribe, but I never did understand the name they were called), but it does connect to the general theme that the white men have been cruel to the Indians, who are looking for revenge too, even as they also fight amongst themselves. In other words, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy in all this is ambiguous. It seemed pretty clear that Glass knew the Indians would kill Fitzgerald, so his literally bloody hands don’t seem particularly clean either. I don’t think we’re supposed to admire him for what he’s done, although we may be amazed at his will to survive.
I’m not arguing, by the way, that an interesting story couldn’t be made from what is known about what really happened to Glass, which even Jerome concedes is murky and contested. But if you’re going to accuse a movie of making shit up to somehow scam us all, I think you need to try to understand what the artists are trying to accomplish rather than just leaping to the conclusion that they’re a bunch of sensationalistic whores doing anything to make money. I mean, again, this movie may well pander to back-patting white liberals who like to think they’re down with the Indians, but that’s actually a far different “inauthenticity” than what Jerome is claiming. I do think it’s worth holding these stories up for scrutiny and the bullshit test, but for that matter I do quite often enjoy the product of sensationalistic whores. The spectacle in this one is of a pretty high quality, even if I ultimately see Mad Max: Fury Road as the far superior, far more radical action movie.