This Review Contains Spoilers
Mutilation and Modernity: Reality Spoils Fiction
I want to be clear: I enjoyed this movie. As a standalone work of art, it satisfied me on numerous levels. As a viewer, I was given a glimpse into astounding natural landscapes, historically accurate survival techniques, vivid frontier violence, and a profoundly primal human struggle. The film is quintessentially American, and I believe that many audience members left with a deeper respect for the intrepid frontiersmen who fought fiercely for their very survival as they blazed the trails that would become our nation. The obvious co-narrative of any tale of expansion in the fledgling United States, is the vicious treatment of indigenous tribes by European settlers. I would argue that in the case of The Revenant, Native Americans were fairly treated by director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Although unnecessarily muddled, their role in this story was important, and represented them as both kind and fierce.
DiCaprio’s acting was transportive: I am always impressed when such a well-known actor can help me forget his off-screen persona in such a career-defining role. As Leo is well-owed an Oscar, the following pains me to write: Tom Hardy put on a better performance. Spit in my face, flay me alive, force me to eat Bison liver, but Tom brought up such conflicting emotions in me that I have to hand him the crown.
Hardy plays the villain, a man named John Fitzgerald. We discover that Fitz has survived a scalping, and signed on to the trapping party to scrape up enough money to move to Texas, where he mentions he’d like to settle down. Despite the murder, wickedness, and selfishness of his actions, I rather liked his character. Under constant attack by Arikara, barely surviving under harsh conditions, and consistently losing his pay (having to abandon company pelts), Fitzgerald’s actions can be explained as efficient survival techniques. The entire film consists of depictions of the most taxing necessities of wilderness survival; the precise array of fates that Fitzgerald was trying to avoid. In his own mind, he was saving himself, Bridger, and living to fight another day. I understand that my defense of a lying, murdering, evildoer like Fitz is questionable- this is Tom Hardy’s doing: he made the man relatable.
Leo’s acting is nothing to sneer at either. Despite long stretches of film during which the audience is treated to his panting, groaning, squeaking, fevered jabbering, and agonized screams, I didn’t find myself wanting out. I was even shocked to look at his pained facial expressions. This may not seem like it matters, but I’m a horror flick veteran who has seen the tortured faces of hundreds of A and B list actors, and who has been able to laugh them all away in my mind. DiCaprio’s epic performance was unquestionably aided by the epic environment and hyper realistic portrayal of life on a trapping expedition. Sure, there were mistakes (there was no smokeless gunpowder in the early 1800s) but most viewers won’t be the wiser, and the most frustrating inaccuracies were manufactured consciously. Go see the movie- I don’t need to tell you that Leo and Tom can put on a great show. I wish I could have enjoyed this epic movie more, but unfortunately, I had read the book it was based on: “The Revenant” by Michael Punke.
Why Did You Do These Things, Iñárritu & Co?
I’m insulted by many of the changes that the writers and director chose to make to the narrative established by Punke’s hard work and research. Let me give you a brief list of the changes that have my jimmies so rustled:
- John Fitzgerald did not murder Hugh Glass’s son: Allow me to repeat that: the makers of The Revenant altered our real main character’s motivation drastically. We don’t even know if Hugh Glass had a son at all. I wonder if the writers decided that the public is so emotionally needy that we wouldn’t understand a thirst for revenge based on a breach of loyalty, attempted murder, and theft. I also wonder why they felt they needed to make one of the harshest landscapes and combative situations imaginable more brutal. Part of the hard beauty of this story is that loyalty, truth, and equipment were so important to frontiersmen that Glass literally tracked Fitz across the entire United States just for revenge and his gun.
- Much of this story occurred in the summer: This one I can understand, I guess. What with filming, lodging, and seasonal changes, if you can only get takes in Winter, fine. I’m still curious if they felt the need to film it all in the snow because survival is more painful in the cold.
- The Arikaras weren’t searching for a kidnapped woman at the time: I can understand socio-political pressures that might affect the indigenous narrative here, but I am confused: Glass survived because of aid rendered by friendly (likely) Pawnee Indians. There’s a whole story interwoven in the film that never occurred, and was totally unnecessary.
- Rapacious Frenchmen? Nope: This addition also felt like some kind of guilty admission of European brutality. I understand the filmmakers motivation for including this, but its inclusion cheapens the story. While I’m sure that rapacious Frenchmen existed at this time, there is no mention of them anywhere that I could find. Punke’s well-researched account refers to camp-followers who acted as prostitutes rather than kidnapped sex slaves.
- Hugh Glass Never Killed John Fitzgerald: It just never happened. Glass chased Fitzgerald on an epic journey that led all the way to Texas. Our hero banded together with relatively friendly Frenchmen, dodged Arikara arrows on bull boats made of buffalo hide, and more. Eventually, he caught up to a newly enlisted John Fitzgerald at an army camp. Glass was returned his rifle, but denied blood due to the harsh penalty for murdering a soldier.
So, why am I insulted? I love this story. I understand that Punke took creative liberties in his account, but I just can’t get around the sheer volume brought to bear by Iñárritu and co. Hugh Glass was a real man, with a real life. He was killed by Arikara Indians while hunting bear. He was a U.S. Army Hunter. He was born in 1784. The Revenant doesn’t even make mention of these facts, presumably because a quick Google would reveal that much of the film is total fiction. The film even makes Glass out to be a murderer, which he doesn’t seem to have been.
Red Hatchet Outdoors is a function of my love for the indomitable survivalist: the outdoorsman, hunter, explorer, trailblazer, and warrior in us all. Fundamentally, The Revenant is a celebration of that spirit and I enjoyed it as such. Unfortunately, the societal underpinnings that seemingly transformed a story that could stand on its own two legs into something… else… partially ruined my viewing experience.