The Revenant

Frontier America’s (Furry) Heart of Darkness
Revenant Street Art Movie
Photo by Maureen Barlin via Flickr

In 2002, novelist and historian Michael Punke quietly published a novel called “The Revenant,” based on the historical record surrounding the life and adventures of 19th century American fur trapper High Glass. The term “revenant,” which means “a person who returns after death, like a ghost,” is an apt title for Glass’ experiences. Punke pitches his tale as a revenge story, but its so much more. As Punke’s story begins, Glass is mauled by a bear while traveling with his fur trapping party, and then betrayed and left for dead by two other trappers tasked by the trip’s leader with caring for Glass until his wounds heal. Miraculously, Glass manages to survive after being abandoned for dead, and then embarks on a solo mission to seek and destroy the men who betrayed him. Punke’s novel, a sort of Cormac McCarthy meets Robert Utley adventure, is a taut, spare read, an engrossing look at 19th century fur trapping culture and the exploitative extractive violence that accompanies it.

Fast forward to 2016. Outpunking Punke, the movie version of “The Revenant” ain’t for the faint of heart, Back story. Director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (fresh of his 2015 “Birdman” Oscar victory) and legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki drag Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and a whole cast and crew into the wilds of Canada and Argentina to film their own version of Punke’s story. After near mutinies by a very cold cast and crew, Inarritu’s team produces a film that is a cinematic tour de force, a story that goes after much bigger metaphorical game than Punke’s novel. “The Revenant” on the big screen is nothing less than a visual and thematic journey into the American frontier psyche, our own version of Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness.

Put simply, “The Revenant” is a beautiful and a terrible film to watch. Inarritu and Lubezki deliver stunning landscapes (topographic scenes that often look nothing like American fur trapper country, but no matter) with both panoramic and close up shots that linger over the landscape, pulling the viewer into a remarkable world of ice, snow, water, wind – elementalist mis-en-scene at its finest. Punctuating these sublime scenes are moments of harrowing violence, from the opening vignette in which exhausted fur trappers engage in a bloody (and balletically filmed) battle with the indigenous Arikara, to the extended “Glass mauled by Grizzly” scene (warning – it goes on forever), to the stunning conclusion of the story, which I will not spoil for you here (a dramatically different end than the novel – Hollywood must always be Hollywood.)

Buried underneath all the grit, animal skins, and savagery, Inarritu wants viewers to confront America’s dark frontier past, and he serves up mystical and metaphorical scenes a’plenty. In the movie version of “The Revenant,” Inarritu deepens Glass’s personal story. DiCaprio/Glass takes an Indian wife, sires a meti (mixed race) son, and then things go downhill from there. Giant piles of bison bones and skulls, race-based lynchings, cross-cultural mistrust, the sheer power of the western landscape – “nature red in tooth and claw” does not even begin to define the intensity of Glass’s experience or the darkness of Inarritu’s vision. And yet, Glass’ ability to survive is truly astonishing, even more so given the evidence for his experiences reflected in the historical record.

If you decide to brave “The Revenant” on the big screen, be prepared for an epic, horrifying, beautiful, and exhausting ride.  With the possible exception of director Bruce Beresford’s 1991 “Black Robe,” I’ve never seen anything quite like “The Revenant” on film. Is it worth twelve Oscar nominations? You be the judge. Meanwhile, I’ll be at home, curled up naked in a dead horse carcass, waiting out the Vermont winter.

Rob Williams, PhD, is a professor of media, global studies, and communications in the Burlington, Vermont area. He teaches at the University of Vermont, Champlain College, and Saint Michael’s College, has authored numerous articles on critical media literacy education, lectures around the world, and is currently the board co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME). His most recent book, for which he served as co-editor, is Media Education for a Digital Generation (Routledge, 2016).

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