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Note: The following “review,” contains spoilers and is intended for those who have already seen the film and desire a more thought provoking engagement with the film. That being said, this article is more of a commentary and/or analysis than it is a conventional review. In no way does this article offer an exhaustive analysis of the film that completes and ends all conversation about the film’s meaning. Rather, the author’s intention is to inspire further commentary and critique in the readership as a means of continuing the ongoing interaction between film and theory. Once more, if you have not seen this film, we do not recommend that you read this article.
The Revenant, a film based in part on the Michael Punke novel by the same name (The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge), released in the United States on Christmas Day 2015, and since then, has been met with great praise from the critics. Only three weeks following its release, the film was awarded extensively at the Golden Globes; being nominated for four awards—Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Actor – Drama, and Best Original Score—and winning three: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Actor – Drama. Unsurprisingly, The Revenant then went on to win an additional four awards at the BAFTA’s. Following his widely successful film Birdman – The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Iñárritu has the chance to be only the 3rd director ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director two years in a row (with only John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz doing it previously), and the first to do so in over 65 years. No matter how clever a screenplay may be, proper casting is the key to getting it off the ground. The Revenant is no exception to this general rule… Fan-favorite, Leonardo DiCaprio, stars as Hugh Glass, the man behind an extensive body of American Midwestern folklore. The story catalogues Glass’ betrayal by the hands of John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy) who leaves him behind, injured and helpless, for Mother Nature to swallow up. Physically and psychologically mangled— the former consequence of a vicious bear attack, and the latter the result of severe distress surrounding his fragile family structure—Glass struggles to find his way through the god-forsaken wilderness. The film explores the common tropes and motifs that make up most of humanity’s mythology; The Revenant is a film about the inseparable bond between a father and his son, and follows the “revenge as redemption” plot-line to a tee. The film’s obvious agenda is to foster an awareness of the indigenous Americans and their plight, and it communicates this in a clear and compelling manner. One would be mistaken, however, to assume that this was the extent of the film’s social commentary, and it is precisely this line of thinking that I hope to discourage with this “review.”
We might articulate the “primary plot-line” up until this point as what Freud referred to when speaking of dreams, as the “manifest content.” The manifest content of a dream is the material and/or scenery that is most apparent, but devoid of any meaning and function beyond its purpose as the censorship of the dream’s true meaning – referred to by Freud as the “latent content.” The manifest content, to use a cultured example, is the Trojan horse of the “dream filter.” In this way, Iñárritu’s focus on survival, revenge, and the indigenous, are more so relevant as a form of contextual storytelling (and perhaps even a deliberate diversion), but only insofar as this context provides the opportunity for the latent storyline (content) just beneath the surface to present itself, albeit in an obscure form.
At this point, you might be wondering what exactly The Revenant is about, if not the story of Hugh Glass’ chess match with his fellow man, and the wilderness. The film could very well be understood from a purely biographical angle, but these readings are far too simple and prevalent. My claim, is that in order for one to fully grasp and appreciate this film, it is to be understood within three distinct frames of reference. The Revenant’s social commentary can be understood through the lens of three categories: The Political, The Religious/Numinous, and The Existential. These categories, although largely overlapping and less differentiated than how I present them, permit us to speak about the film in an efficient manner, and so serve more of an organizational purpose than they do a conceptual or semantic one. The brief commentary that follows is my humble attempt to unveil and further elucidate the latent material of the film, and to present it in a way that is approachable and practical. In each section, I will engage with a limited number of scenes with the hopes of being able to explore each from a more descriptive position—the reader will see that even then, for the sake of brevity, my analyses are incomplete at best. Despite this, each section might function as a sufficient starting point for those interested in providing commentary, and continuing the conversation.
"The Revenant’s social commentary can be understood through the lens of three categories: The Political, The Religious/Numinous, and The Existential."
In the scenes following Glass’ confrontation with the bear, the company of men rally around him in an attempt to save his life, and in turn, rekindle what little chances they have at navigating the terrain successfully. When it proves too difficult for the men to care to Glass without calling their chances of survival further into question, Captain Henry (played by Domhnall Gleeson) decides to offer additional pay for the three men who volunteer to stay behind and watch over Glass until he passes on. Hawk (Glass’ son), and Jim Bridger offer unhesitatingly to stay behind with Glass to ensure that he is given every opportunity to recuperate. With neither of the other men interested in the deal, Hawk and Bridger offer up their cut of the pay to sweeten the reward for whoever may be willing. Having grown frustrated with losing his sole means of income (i.e. the pelts) Fitzgerald elects to stay behind with Glass and the boys as a desperate attempt to salvage the operation financially.
The scene of importance here is one in which Hawk and Bridger, leaving Fitzgerald alone with Glass, spread out to set traps, gather water and other materials. In this scene alone, Fitzgerald’s monologue hints at an embedded strain of political commentary additional to that which is focused on the Native Americans. While tending to Glass, Fitzgerald proposes a deal:
Fitzgerald (to Glass) –
Fitzgerald’s proposition is an exemplar representation of the post-modern manifestation of power manipulation, as best conceptualized by Slavoj Žižek. This scene directly parallels that which Žižek communicates as the “freedom of a forced choice,” or how the post-modern superego, and/or the permissive parent—a microcosmic example of a permissive government (i.e. Democracy/Capitalism)—exerts power and control, albeit in a “censored” form. On this Žižek states:
The parental figure who is simply ‘repressive’ in the mode of symbolic authority tells a child: ‘You must go to grandma’s birthday party and behave nicely, even if you are bored to death – I don’t care whether you want to, just do it!’ The superego figure, in contrast, says to the child: ‘Although you know how much grandma would like to see you, you should go to her party only if you really want to – if you don’t, you should stay at home.’ The trick performed by the superego is to seem to offer the child a free choice, when, as every child knows, he is not being given any choice at all. Worse than that, he is being given an order and told to smile at the same time. Not only: ‘You must visit your grandma, whatever you feel,’ but: ‘You must visit your grandma, and you must be glad to do it!’ The superego orders you to enjoy doing what you have to do. What happens, after all, if the child takes it that he has a genuinely free choice and says ‘no’? The parent will make him feel terrible. ‘How can you say that!’ his mother will say: ‘How can you be so cruel! What did your poor grandma do to make you not want to see her?’ [my italics]
Fitzgerald’s proposition is as much a gesture of power and manipulation as the one in the above example, albeit with greater tenacity. Fitzgerald’s choice of questioning, and the deliberate false presentation that Glass actually has options at his disposal robs Glass of the language needed to articulate a subversive response—much how the dominant power structure perpetuates ideology, and reinforces particular social mores (whereas in the above example the child could actually say “no”). Unlike Glass’ situation though, the child in Žižek’s hypothetical is able to say “no.” Doing so, however, is the primary definition of an empty gesture, for what the child accomplishes compares very little to the consequences of disobeying. In this way, Glass and the child are not in such qualitatively different predicaments as first assumed, for saying “no” is in no manner the same as disobeying, and so to articulate a subversive response, one needs more than the societally construed, politically-correct medium of language to do so. In both examples, there is a predetermined selection of choices, as defined by the dominant power structure (Fitzgerald and The Father), in any given society. The only difference being—between Glass and the child qua the populace—is that Glass is consciously aware of the manipulative process whereas the typical member of society is not.
The necessity to draw Žižek into this conversation is to close the distance between the authoritarian father/government and the permissive father/government as a means of showing that they are not as systematically unique and varied as they seem. Fitzgerald’s proposition to Glass was an obvious attempt to control the situation in his favor; Making short work of Glass increased the likelihood that he, and perhaps the boys, would live. His motive was purely utilitarianistic. In the example provided by Žižek, the father’s proposition is no different; the intention remains motivated by the desire for control and/or power. Following this stream of thought, we might understand Fitzgerald’s authoritarianism not merely as it pertains to a specific “historical context” in the film and in history (i.e. authoritarian styles of communication and control are more “old-fashioned” and/or prevalent in past generations), but as a representation of the political struggle today, in a world ravaged by the permissive, politically correct, morally trepid man, who is just as much motivated by his egoism and his desire for control as those who came before him, but is unaware of it.
Iñárritu makes use of religious iconography in a way that directly calls forth the ongoing debate on the function of religion and whether it has exhausted its usefulness in today’s “secular world.” The first scene that comes to mind presents Fitzgerald and Bridger seated around a campfire, tired and exhausted following their trek back to camp after abandoning Glass. Bridger, ambivalent and visibly displeased and convicted about leaving Glass behind, sits quietly as Fitzgerald roasts some meat over the exposed flames. While cooking, Fitzgerald retells a story about his father’s experiences in the wilderness.
"This scene communicates perfectly the lack of usefulness in a God for those facing the uncertain and threatening abyss of nature, and the juggling for survival. It was only in the security of the day’s meal that the convenience of the future came into being. "
For men like Fitzgerald’s father, the immanence of those perils of everyday life far outweighed the distant punishment to come at the hands of a distant and transcendent God figure. We might say then, that for Fitzgerald’s father, God was dead – in the “true” Nietzschian sense of the phrase, whereas for Fitzgerald, and for many folks today, God is Unconscious – in the “true” Lacanian sense of the phrase.
Take for example, the most recent Gallup polls… At first glance—and in most interpretations of the data— they lend support to the claim that God, as operationally defined by Religious Affiliation, is dying. In just seven years, from 2008-2015 the percentage of those who selfidentified as irreligious, or as having no religious identification increased a total of five percent, and furthermore, approximately 1/3 of those between the ages of 18 and 24 identified as having “no religion.” The inherent limitations of the survey methodology and the limited sample size aside, one could easily interpret the data in a way conducive to the argument that our society is becoming more “secular.” Has God been wounded, surely to bleed out and rot away in the hearts and minds of our youngest generation? The Gods of their mothers and fathers may very well be buried, although I’d find it more accurate to say that the Gods have merely shapeshifted and found a home within the hostile territory of the “secular.”
It is true that the American population has grown more and more displeased with the Church—especially the younger generations— and have begun to identify as “irreligious” – lending them the nickname of, “the nones” (see right). Despite this growing population of “the nones,” however, we must be careful to perceive this apparent rise in secularism as detached and isolated of all religious sensibility. This is precisely where the validity in Lacan’s statement lies. Those no longer identifying with a religious tradition will nevertheless identify with another community, be it political (liberal, conservative), occupational, or whatever. These identifications in the younger, secular generation of “the nones,” assume the same role and purpose as the God of the generations before, and so, attests to the claim that God has not been disposed of entirely, but only insofar as consciousness finds a trace of him. They may be finished with entertaining the idea of God, but the idea of God isn’t finished with them.
Iñárritu explores this phenomena of the “fallen church” in a scene when Glass dreams—as he does frequently throughout the film—of being united again with his deceased son (and in other instances, his wife). The dream is a prototypical example of what Freud referred to as “wish fulfillment.” Equally as important to the characters and content in his dreamwork, are the setting in which they takes place. In this particular dream, the remnants of what used to be a fully functional church surround him and his son. Imagery of the Virgin Mary persists and remains visible despite the deterioration of the chapel’s infrastructure. Only one exterior wall remains highly protruded, prideful and elegant, as it holds the cold and rusted church bell that once called warmly all those who were nearby to worship. Much like this destroyed Church in Glass’ dream, the uselessness of the religious institution of today is becoming more apparent. But furthermore, it does not necessarily follow that the church, however broken, is devoid of all numinous quality. For it is precisely in the ashes of the long forgotten church that Glass finds peace again, and it is precisely in the ash and excrement of today’s church that something new may arise.
Captain Henry –
The point of interest in this exchange of dialogue above is Fitzgerald’s response, and not merely what insight it sheds on the scope of his thought process and his character. Most intriguing is the distinction made between life, as a noun, and its verb conjugation – as living. For Fitzgerald, and many other hard-working individuals, then and now, the possession of “life” is a matter of convenience and luxury. To have a life, already in hand, implies that the very action of living in unnecessary, and/or already ensured. In this way, Fitzgerald’s response represents the existential dilemma that permeates the entire film, namely, the tension between the human tendency to refer to life as already attained, and the process of attaining that life.1
Captain Henry, the son of a doctor, and a largely static character, has what he wants. Conveniently, he speaks of life as something tangibly in hand and concrete. During one segment in the film, Fitzgerald critiques Henry’s decision making by alluding to his spoiled, “upper-class” upbringing—which whether consequential in Henry’s promotion to captain, or not, is irrelevant. It does make perfect sense of the dialogue above though. Which stands as the major point of departure between Henry and our two protagonists: Glass and Fitzgerald. Glass and Fitzgerald both, are dynamic, and so fragmented and incomplete—both searching for a life that will offer them a sense of wholeness. For Glass, this search is in the restoration of the idyllic image of the past, a pre-Fall Eden state where he, his wife, and Hawk could live happily ever after. Whereas Fitzgerald wishes to escape and avoid his petrifying past in the utopic, idealized vision of a future where he can live out the American Dream stress-free on a large plot of land in Texas.
The end of the film stands as proof that neither’s life will ever come into existence in the way imagined, no matter how passionately they will it, and it is in this way that The Revenant struggles with the existentialist dilemma of nihilism; be it in Captain Henry’s untimely, pointless death, Fitzgerald’s traumatic end by scalping, and/or in Glass’ yearning and helplessness. The film finds its end in a Hugh Glass who, despite having apparently quenched his insatiable thirst for revenge, by-proxy, remains disappointed and yearns evermore. Iñárritu offers no sense of closure. Rather than seeing the triumph of love, as manifested in an eternal, heavenly scene of reunion between Glass and his family, the audience is left alone with a darkened screen qua the void/the abyss, coupled only with the sound of Glass’ strained respiration. The ending begs the question that even if your lungs continue to draw breaths, is there any reason to continue on breathing if you have nothing to live for? We might also question the inverse… If we have everything to live for, should we not force a breath when our lungs deny it? Both questions, different in their emotive connotations, are existential ones, and they—along with the political and the religious commentaries presented above—stand as evidence that The Revenant (and most other films) contain a chthonic layer of meaning, otherwise referred to here as the latent content of the film.
1 Regrettably, this line of thinking concerning the significance of life, and how one’s utilization of the variety of grammatical conjugations communicates this significance, has been severely cut short. Firstly, because the thesis of the paper doesn’t call for the extensive detour that it would take to discuss the topic adequately, and secondly, because I am beyond my means intellectually to flesh out the necessary connections to form a cohesive argument.
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