‘The Revenant’

The Revenant (2015) begins with a set piece battle scene in which Native American Indians from the Arikara tribe attack American fur traders. The atmosphere is dark in every sense, wintry with impenetrable black shadows and muted colours; and a brutal battle melee.

The rawness of the opening scene sets the tone for the whole film. This is a story about the everyday struggle for survival. The central character, Hugh Glass, leads the surviving men to the boat and they escape down the river. But the Arikara war party are on their tail. Glass is attacked by a huge brown bear and badly injured. Left to die by the Cowardly Fitzgerald, Glass makes a heroic journey back to the trading camp: surviving an attack by the Arikara tribe, saving the Arikara chief’s daughter, and returning to tell the truth to the trading camp’s commander about a murderous coward in their midst. The final leg of the film is taken up by Glass’ revenge mission.

The grim fight for life tone and the winter darkness gives the film an apocalyptic feel reminiscent of The Road. Both these worlds are harsh places where the few good people (a father protecting his son) are surrounded by danger. Nature in both these stories is remorselessly unforgiving; in The Road the natural world is no longer able to support life, and in The Revenant nature is treated like an alien world rather than the Romantic ideal more commonly associated with the Old American West (with free-spirited explorers jovially passing through boundless open spaces). There are obvious echoes of The New World and even The Thin Red Line with repeated shots of the tree canopy blowing in the wind and the narrated internal worlds of characters.

Like Seraphim Falls, The Revenant is a battle between two men that takes place within a godless wilderness, echoing the revenge plot of The Outlaw Josey Wales. The hero in these stories seeks justice. At one point in The Revenant Glass even resorts to using the inside of a gutted horse as a makeshift shelter like Gideon in Seraphim Falls. Unlike Seraphim Falls , which merely aims to be a great story and cinematic entertainment (along the lines of a Hollywood action movie or a Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western), The Revenant alludes to presenting the audience with something more true to real life (‘inspired by true events’). This is where the problem comes in because it’s still a Hollywood action movie — using the pretence of historical accuracy for marketing purposes. The real story (which the film is based on) is very different and much less dramatic (there are no marriages to Native American Indian women and no dramatic fights or deaths). But, basing it on a ‘real event’ gives it authenticity.

The Revenant is an entertaining Revisionist Western, featuring a white man married to a Native American Indian woman, with a mixed-race son — struggling to stay alive in an unforgiving world. There’s a lot of violent action, and beautifully photographed landscapes, but as a story it has many issues. It’s very male dominated; the women are either slaughtered, raped or exist as prostitutes — and its historical accuracy is marginal.