Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Revenant

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I decided to discuss a more recent film for a change. This 2015 movie, which won director Alejandro G. Iñάrritu his second consecutive Oscar, and Leonardo DiCaprio his first, for Best Actor, presents many themes, including loss, love of family, but especially humankind’s place in this world and its relationship to a higher power.
The first scene is a dreamy shot showing us the family of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), who sleeps beside his resting Pawnee spouse and his son. The peaceful shot switches to the violent one of the burning image of their teepee and Glass holding the body of his wife. We hear Glass’ words to his son which are repeated in the movie and which convey the basic survival instinct of all animals in in their pure, primitive state: “You don’t give up, you hear me? As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe … keep breathing.”
We then come out of the dream and we see and hear the flow of a river, the water being the source of all life on earth. But then we see a man’s footsteps, making its imprint on creation, and he carries a gun, a weapon of extreme destruction, making its impact on nature. The man carrying the gun is Glass and he is hunting with his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Native Americans many times have names which show their connection to the natural environment, as is the case here. And, despite the use of a gun, Glass is only trying to do what all animals do, which is acquire food to live. But then we have an escalation of humans out-of-sync with nature in the form of the group of trappers who kill animals not for survival, but for their pelts, for profit. There follows an ambush on their camp by Indians known as the Ree, and we see that Glass is actually working with the trappers as a guide. He goes to the camp and helps fight off the attackers. He is almost killed himself, but one of the trappers saves him. Those who survive take the pelts they can gather and escape on a boat.

First off, the remarkable cinematography of this fight scene should be noted. The camera is right in the middle of the action, and the audience feels as if it is literally one of the participants, spinning around and being part of the battle. Another point is that Glass is a man moving between worlds, and goes back and from one to the other, similar to Dustin Hoffman’s character in Little Big Man. He is a white man who had a Native American wife, and has a son with her, who has, in a way, been dragged into his father’s situation. Later when asked why he left the Native American world, he says he became tired of the quiet, which shows how he doesn’t seem to fit in well in that life. Or, possibly it was too difficult for him to be in a culture that reminded him of the loss of his wife. From the start, Glass inhabits a magical realism type of space between dreams and reality. And, as we see later, he goes between the realm of the living and that of the dead. He is a character who transcends narrow boundaries of perceiving the world. His character is based on a real person named Hugh Glass, but it is interesting that the name is appropriate for the story, since he reflects the various facets of life around him. Ironically, despite his name, he certainly is not breakable.

The chief of the Native Americans who attacked the trappers is named Elk Dog (Duane Howard). White men have taken his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) and he is searching for her. The importance of family that is essential to Glass is mirrored here in the Native American people. Elk Dog wants the pelts so he can trade them for horses to find his child. He goes to a camp of Frenchmen to trade for the horses. The French are just as unscrupulous as the other white men. They put on a pretense of being religious by praying, but they are there to plunder the land, and, hypocritically call the Indians savages. They originally do not want to live up to their exchange with the Ree, but relent. The whites call the Indians “savages,” but the Ree violence is a reaction to what the whites have initiated. Elk Dog says they may have taken the pelts, but they are not like the Americans, who “have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The animals.” One of the Frenchmen admits, in a way vocalizing a theme of the movie, that when it comes to survival and protecting one’s family, “We are all savages.”

The character of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is Glass’ nemesis. When Glass returns to the camp to help fight off the Ree, he shouts out that they should forget the pelts and just leave. His attitude is one of basic survival for his comrades. But, Fitzgerald’s priority is protecting the pelts, not the men. His selfishness is immediately evident. He is at odds with Glass on how they should continue, wanting to stay on the river, while Glass knows that the Ree are more dangerous there, and wants to go on land. Their leader is Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who sides with the experienced Glass. Fitzgerald also has suffered a loss, which is not that of the loss of others. His animosity to Indians comes from his being partially scalped once. So, his loss is restricted to himself. He accuses Glass, having been married to a Pawnee, of tipping off the Ree, and suggests Hawk, being a “savage,” may have conspired against the white trappers. Fitzgerald brings up a rumor that Glass once killed an Army officer. In a later dream flashback, we realize that it was American soldiers that killed Glass’ wife and threatened his son. He tells Henry at that point in the story when, again, asked if he killed an officer, that “I just killed a man who was trying to kill my son.” For Glass, the distinctions between the two worlds do not matter, since he deals with individuals, not groups, based on the immediate situations, and therefore, prejudicial thinking is alien to him. After Henry orders Fitzgerald to cease his accusations, Glass rebukes Hawk for speaking up against Fitzgerald’s words. He says, “They don’t hear your voice. They just see the color of your face.” Glass wants his son to understand how to exist in the place he finds himself, and among the whites, that environment is one where bigotry lives.
While in the woods hunting, a bear attacks Glass, clawing and biting him. Gravely wounded, he shoots it, which does not stop the grizzly, but he still has the stamina to knife the creature, finally killing the animal. Yes, humans in the wild (it’s called that for a reason – it is not basically a tame environment) many times have to fight to continue living. But, let’s not forget that the bear had its cubs nearby, and rightly saw the human as a predatory threat. Doesn’t the animal have as much right to fight for survival? And, the idea of caring for a family is an inter-species concern, not just a human one.
Hearing the gunshot brings the other men. Fitzgerald, again only thinking of himself, says Glass shouldn’t have fired the weapon, since it would bring more predators. Henry knows a bit about medical treatment since his father was a doctor, and he does his best to patch up Glass, who is close to death. Henry attempts to carry Glass back to an outpost, but the trail is too arduous. Urged on by Fitzgerald, the captain almost decides to put Glass out of his misery, but relents. He promises a reward for those who stay behind with the wounded man until the others can send help. Hawk and a young man named Bridger (Will Poulter) volunteer and forfeit their share of the reward. Fitzgerald wants his share and those of the other two men for him to stay behind. Bridger (whose name suggests he is like Glass, living between two places) wants to protect Glass. He gives him his canteen which has a spiral drawn on it. Later, he leaves food for an Indian woman, which shows his sense of caring for humanity as a whole. When Fitzgerald is alone with Glass, he says that he should let Fitzgerald put him down for the sake of Hawk. He tells Glass to blink his eyes if he agrees. Glass holds his eyes open as long as he can, and when he closes them, Fitzgerald allows his conscience to try to suffocate Glass. Hawk comes by and tried to stop him, but Fitzgerald stabs him to death as Glass grunts in outrage, since his wounds prevent him from speaking. Fitzgerald hauls Hawk’s body off into the woods, and convinces Bridger that he saw Ree braves close by, that they probably killed Hawk, and that they have to leave Glass behind and quickly escape. Fitzgerald pulls Glass into a shallow grave he had been digging already to dispose of Glass’ body.
As was mentioned above, Glass travels between the world of the living and the dead. The title of the film refers to someone who comes back from the dead as a ghost or spirit. His wounds should have killed him, but Glass pulls himself out of his grave, resurrecting himself, and drags himself along. He finds Hawk’s body, and says he is with him, which are the first words of the story. It’s possible it is his desire for revenge against Fitzgerald that keeps him going against all odds. He uses his skills to keep alive. He finds a bear pelt for warmth. He uses brush and sparks from striking rocks to start a fire. He ignites gunpowder to seal a neck wound. He catches and eats raw fish, and consumes a tiny bit of meat off of an animal’s skeletal carcass. He then encounters a Pawnee, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud) who has killed some buffalo. Since in his condition Glass is not a threat, speaks Pawnee, and tells Hikuc that men have killed his son and left him to die, the Native American gives him food.  Hikuc, too, has lost his family, to a rival Sioux tribe. But, he says, “My heart bleeds. But revenge is in the Creator’s hands.” He allows Glass to ride on his horse with him. As they sit together, catching nature’s nourishing moisture on their tongues, they seem at peace and one with their surroundings for a brief time. Hikuc applies Native American medicine to Glass’ wounds and builds him a sweat lodge.

When Glass emerges from the womb-like shelter, again it is like he is reborn, leaving death behind once again. The Indian is not there but left him provisions. He starts to travel, and comes across the body of Hikuc, who has been hanged by French fur trappers. He has a sign hung on him that ironically labels him a savage. The man who has mercifully helped Glass, was killed savagely by so-called civilized men. Glass comes across the Frenchmen’s camp. They are the ones who have abducted Powaqa, who Glass sees is being raped by one of the Frenchmen. Glass helps her escape, takes a horse, and rides off. After setting up camp, he is attacked, ironically, by the Ree, who are searching for Powaqa. He rides over a ledge. Again, he survives by having his fall broken by trees, but his horse dies. Glass cuts open the dead horse, removes its organs, and climbs inside (remember Han saving Luke in The Empire Strikes Back?) so he can weather the blizzard around him. So, we have another womb symbol here, and Glass emerges resurrected here, too. He also has visions of his wife and his son. In a sense, they are also revenants, experienced by Glass as he travels between the living and the dead. That is why Glass says he is with Hawk, because for him the dead are always with him. His state of being does not restrict him into only one state of being, and that way of existence makes him strong. The dream spirit of his wife urges him with her words that his son repeated to him and which Glass has said to Hawk: “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.”
On their journey to the fort outpost, Bridger discovers that Fitzgerald lied about Ree closing in on them, justifying leaving Glass behind. Fitzgerald talks about his father: “He weren’t a religious man, you know? If you couldn’t grow it, kill it, or eat it, he just old didn’t believe in it.” He says after a hunting trip went wrong, and Comanche attacked his group, he was alone and told his son he found God, who for his dad, was in the form of a fat squirrel. For him, the animal represented the “glory and sublimity of mercy.” He killed and ate the animal. Fitzgerald inherited this limited vision of the universe, which Glass, Bridger, and Hikuc transcend because they look beyond basic selfish wants to the need to care for others. 

Bridger feels guilty about leaving Glass behind, and goes along with his companion’s story about moving on after Glass died when the two arrive at the fort outpost. A French fur trapper from the camp Glass attacked shows up at the fort and has the canteen Bridger gave Glass, and which Glass lost at the French camp. Captain Henry now knows Fitzgerald lied about Glass, and uses the Frenchmen’s directions to search for Glass, who his men find, bring back to camp, and have the doctor tend to. Fitzgerald has escaped with money from the fort’s safe. Glass backs up Bridger’s story, saying the young man didn’t know about Hawk or Fitzgerald’s deception about the Ree. Glass wants to go after Fitzgerald. He likens him to an animal, not a man, because he is afraid and will, like a scared elk, run deep into the woods. “I got him trapped, he just doesn’t know it yet,” he says.
Glass and Captain Henry go looking for Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, the fugitive kills Henry, and Glass comes across his body. We now have another example of a type of resurrection. Glass cuts off a large split branch of tree and uses it to prop up Henry on his horse. It makes it look as if he is alive. In a way, Glass symbolically brings him back to life in order to fulfill the destiny of these characters. Glass, looking dead, lies astride his horse, pretending to be Henry. When Fitzgerald shoots at the already dead Henry, and approaches, Glass, again coming back to life, shoots and wounds Fitzgerald. A brutal fight ensues between the two, with Glass poised to end Fitzgerald’s life. The latter says, “You came all this way for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it Glass? ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ gon and bring your boy back.” At this point, Glass seems to understand what Hikuc said. Glass answers, “No. Revenge is in God’s hands. Not mine.” He then throws Fitzgerald’s wounded body into the river, as if leaving it up to God to exert his will. Which He seems to do, as Elk Dog and his men come along with his daughter, Powaqa. The chief grabs Fitzgerald’s body and he finishes the scalping on him, killing him. Glass is spared for doing his good deed of rescuing the chief’s daughter.

Earlier there is a shot of an immense stretch of snow-covered plains bordered by giant mountains. Glass is just a speck moving along, as are we all, on creation’s giant canvass. There are many camera views from the ground up toward the treetops and the vast sky above. It’s as if this film is reminding us of the small parts we play in an unfathomable interlocking story.

The next film is Full Metal Jacket.

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