“I believe that in future history, the revenge ethic will be seen as the greatest cinematic signature of American mental & spiritual sickness.” Scott Derrickson
When I quoted Derrickson a while back in my review of “Unforgiven,” I hadn’t yet seen “The Revenant.” I wonder now if this film is what triggered his thought.
“The Revenant” is a film completely devoted to that most popular of American cinema themes. To such an extent, in fact, that they take one of the most amazing and compelling true stories of the American frontier and pretty much toss it out completely.
The true story of Hugh Glass is one of a man attacked by a bear, left for dead, and incredibly determined to survive. In the true story he was motivated to live by that natural survival instinct and a quest for revenge—mostly to get his property back. Apparently he is sympathetic with the idea that his companions would leave him for dead in his condition. He was just upset that they left him without any of the things that would give him a fighting chance.
And, in the end, he forgave the men who left him. I really want to read the book of this true story.
But, the film not only tosses out all of the amazing set pieces from the real story in favor of more over-the-top, typical Hollywood fare, they feel the need to amp up the injustice to feed the audience’s need for revenge. So, Glass no has a son. And the man who left him to die is now a despicable, racist, “black-hat” style, Bad Guy. Now we can have a blood lust and fell justified in our desire to see Glass kill someone.
Of course, the real emphasis in the promotion of this film was that it was all done as realistically as possible. With no computer generated effects. They even triggered a real avalanche on film, just because they could. Leo ate real, raw Bison liver, and apparently a real, live fish. But, the bear was animated, I guess there were some things too extreme even for this depiction of real suffering.
And that is what we ultimately have here. Suffering that can be vicariously experienced. Iñárritu even has a jarring approach to making the reality seem even more palpable by having the camera lens fog up when breathed upon, or splatter with blood or water when the fighting gets too close. It takes one out of the story when that happens, and reminds the viewer that this is all an artificial depiction, but it also takes the viewer into the action. We feel like we are participating in the suffering.
It is an excellently executed film. Cinematography and direction are flawless. I just question the choice to change the emphasis from one of overcoming suffering in forgiveness to one of ultimate revenge fulfillment.