“Done so many evil things in the name of love, it’s a crying shame
I never did see no fire that could put out a flame.
Pull your hat down, baby, pull the wool down over your eyes
Keep a-talking, baby, ’til you run right out of alibis.
Someday you’ll account for all the deeds that you done
Well, there ain’t no man righteous, no not one.” – Bob Dylan
Ghosts haunt Alejandro G. Inarritu’s poetic, splendid rendering of the moment Europeans had a choice to pull back, or to forge ahead in their conquest of North America. There was no way our species would have stopped. Not with all of that virgin landscape to plow through – we’d already spread out over most of the land masses, killing nearly 75% of large mammal populations in our endless quest for more. More meat. More territory. While native populations were mostly living in self-sustaining environments – nature pushed back hard against them, the settlers weren’t going to have any of it. There was a moment. We had a choice. The Revenant is about that choice.
Inarritu’s bold approach — to capture the lush landscape of the wilderness in real time, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki chasing his dreams around with a camera like a butterfly net, so fluidly the line between reality and cinema disappears — is the kind of thing you don’t see very often in a big studio movie, if ever. The confounding mystery of a world at once so beautiful and deadly defines the natural world before the Europeans tamed it into submission.
The Revenant’s story is mostly true. A fur trader named Hugh Glass earned legendary folklore status when he survived a grizzly attack and was left for dead in the deep winter, scarred and bloodied. Glass, in real life, eventually went to live with a Native American tribe and even helped lobby for their rights. In Inarritu’s version, Glass is caught somewhere between a dream and a nightmare as he fights for survival and is haunted by those he loved, revenants both of the country’s once pristine past, and his own.
DiCaprio as Glass spends much of the film either speaking the Pawnee language or unable to speak at all. It is his humanity that ultimately carries The Revenant. He has become such a great actor, one taken too much for granted, but he acts this thing from his heart. Even if you feel ready to abandon any sympathy for the human race (I’m almost there), DiCaprio’s Glass is a reminder that we are driven and obligated by our relationships to others, those we love. If humans are ultimately driven by greed and entitlement, we are very nearly redeemed by love.
Inarritu is not painting a picture of graphic, bloody imagery for the fun of it. It is a necessary part of that time, of a species ruled by selfishness, driven to kill. Inarritu’s film is a big, bold impressionistic take of our arrogant beginnings on this continent.
At the same time, The Revenant’s story is deceptively simple. A man is mauled by a mama grizzly bear protecting her two cubs, and left for dead by his greedy team of fur trappers who have been promised money if they stand vigil with his mangled body until he (supposedly) dies. They leave him to a fate that seems inevitable, so when against all odds he lives he must then avenge the death of someone he loved, murdered by those who abandoned him.. That’s the basic story but The Revenant is really not about that at all.
Where the Revenant takes you will depend on how willing you are to give up a need for a traditional narrative. It mystifies, confounds, horrifies and shocks the shit out of you. It is an epic, visceral cinematic ride that isn’t made for the disposable way we often consume our entertainment these days.
There are many ways all life on earth could be wiped out. The planet could be hit with an asteroid or a monster series of volcanoes could erupt. But the reality is, we are causing the sixth mass extinction. We will eventually wipe out most life on earth, including perhaps our own. At this rate, believe me, everything we’ve built — every last Starbucks cup of coffee we’ve drunk, every pig we’ve tortured in gestation crates so we can buy and consume bacon bowls from Walmart — will be just another whiff of the ghosts of humans who once dominated planet earth for what amounts to the last embarrassing days of a species that really was just a blip. A spectacular blip, perhaps, but a blip nonetheless.
While The Revenant never spells it out that explicitly, it conveys its message with symbols and imagery left to the viewer to interpret. It nonetheless communicates the urgency to correctly translate and interpret our true history so that our worst mistakes might not be repeated, so that maybe we can find a way to save what’s left before it’s all gone. Communicating an idea this big is no easy feat. For all of the violence offered up in so many films this year depicting the horrors of humans in almost every aspect of our involvement with one another– the bigger horror is not who we’re killing but where we’re headed.
The Revenant, like the best films ever made, can’t be gotten in one go. Maybe most won’t go back for a second look. Maybe they will stumble out of the theater, not having been told precisely what they’re supposed to think and feel, reach for their phones and start the constant input and output of user data we fill our lives with.
Maybe their feet will touch the concrete and they’ll look out onto the street with so many cars carrying a single person, living out their preordained destiny as a consumer-driven Americans, raised to believe that they should be able to have whatever they want, whenever they want it, no matter what the eventual cost.
We complain about the traffic. We complain about the climate changing. We complain about gun violence. We wonder why our American Dream was never delivered as promised. Some of us who watch The Revenant will connect those complaints backwards in time when there was a choice. The film deliberately leaves us at a crossroads of fate — two potential endings offered up, two different fates for Hugh Glass — and the choice is still ours to make.
The Revenant is about the ghosts of the past, and a harbinger of things to come. It’s about our past, our present and our future. It is also about filmmaking. It is about everything that Birdman lamented — the loss of artistic risk in the face of Hollywood economics in the age of narcissism. Far surpassing Birdman in every aspect, The Revenant was a risk worth taking, a film worth making, and one of the most beautiful and breathtakingly rendered works cinematic art of the year.