The ordeal of filming The Revenant, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fur-trade odyssey of survival and sweet revenge, has received a great deal of attention: for its remote wilderness locations in Alberta and Argentina; for the director’s mad insistence that the scenes be shot in narrative sequence, in natural light, with minimal digital intervention; for the grueling schedule imposed on actors and crew. This is all a bit reminiscent of the hair-raising stories of the production of Werner Herzog’s rainforest epic Aguirre, the Wrath of God, in which arduousness is felt to entail authenticity, as though the movie is a reenactment of the events it records rather than a mere Hollywood facsimile.
Iñárritu has compared the rigors of making the film to the mauling by a grizzly bear that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, the revenant of the title, suffers near the beginning (one imagines Iñárritu would have preferred to enlist a real bear)—the prelude to Glass’s long journey back, through mile after mile of gorgeously filmed country, to settle his score with the men who abandoned him. Revenant is the French word for someone who “comes back,” ghostlike, from the dead. Iñárritu, for his part, is drawn to comebacks, that hoary chestnut of Hollywood melodrama. “We’ll make a comeback,” says aging actor Riggan Thomson’s superhero doppelganger in Iñárritu’s 2014 hit film Birdman.
A veritable Bearman in The Revenant, DiCaprio dons a voluminous bearskin for his wilderness adventures, as though adopting the animal’s identity. Superhero-like, he survives long immersion in a swirling waterfall in midwinter, a plunge over a cliff while eluding a band of rifle-wielding Indians, in addition to enduring that murderous bear.
Iñárritu seeks to persuade us that all this really happened. “This film is based on actual historical events,” proclaims a solemn note near the end of the long credits. “Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.” Viewers should be warned, however, that the balance of history and fantasy is actually almost entirely the reverse. The Revenant is, in truth, an almost wholly fictional film. Certain historical events and characters were added for the purposes of verisimilitude.
Even the historical basis of many of the “true” events remains in doubt, as the best source on the Hugh Glass saga, John Myers Myers’s lively Pirate, Pawnee and Mountain Man (1963), makes clear. A hunter-for-hire named Hugh Glass does seem to have joined a party of fur traders led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson in the film), who ventured up the Grand River in 1823 headed for the Yellowstone in search of beaver pelts, the “soft gold” of the American outback. Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a famous wilderness guide on the Oregon Trail later in life, was a member of the party and so, apparently, was a shadowy figure named Fitzgerald (played, with unsettling relish, by Tom Hardy).
It was part of the oral lore of mountain men and wilderness guides that Glass, while out hunting for the party of trappers, was hideously mauled by a grizzly bear and miraculously survived, after being left to his fate by a pair of fickle companions who had promised (in exchange for a large share of the profits up front) to give him succor and proper burial. (“What happened to you?” a friendly Indian asks DiCaprio’s Glass beside the corpse of a buffalo he’s munching on. “A bear,” Glass answers in fluent Pawnee. “My men left me for dead.”) Important details of the old legend changed with the teller. Was Glass alone when the bear attacked him or accompanied by others? Was Bridger, not yet twenty, really one of the men entrusted with his care? It depends on the source.
Missing from the story of this mountain-man Odysseus was a Penelope, a love interest other than the love of killing innocent animals. A solution was proposed, a century ago, by the poet-historian John Neihardt, whose book-length epic poem in heroic couplets, The Song of Hugh Glass (1915), has Glass fall in love with his maidenly protégé Bridger:
Blue-eyed was he and femininely fair,
A maiden might have coveted his hair.
Such same-sex relationships may be truer to history (one sees, fleetingly, two men dancing together in a drunken clinch in The Revenant) than Iñárritu’s equally sentimental solution, not present in Michael Punke’s slapdash 2002 novel on which the film is partially based: when we first see Glass in The Revenant, he forms part of an idyllic family triangle, with his beautiful Native American lover and their young son, Hawk. They speak to each other in murmured Pawnee, with English subtitles. Glass (who according to Myers lived for a time with a band of Pawnee that had taken him captive) regales his child with banal native proverbs (“The wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots”) and warnings about bigoted white men (“They only understand the color of your skin.”).
If a native lover, as in Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai, adds a dash of exotic romance, young Hawk is enrolled to enhance the revenge motive. When Hawk—who joins Bridger and Fitzgerald in the deathwatch for his father—catches the dastardly Fitzgerald, scalped in some earlier encounter and something of a revenant himself, in the act of smothering Glass, Fitzgerald stabs and kills the boy witness. (He also hides his body from Bridger, who is portrayed as another victim of Fitzgerald’s evil cunning.) Glass, accordingly, has two good reasons to track down Fitzgerald and exact some frontier justice: for abandoning him and for murdering his son.
The weakest parts of the movie are the scenes of Native Americans, who are portrayed as natural ecologists, killing only for food or in self-defense, while the Europeans are invariably seen as cheats, rapists, and plunderers. On est tous des sauvages, French cutthroats scrawl on a sign appended to the corpse of a native brave they have hung from a tree: “We are all savages.” But really the whites are the sole savages in these imagined forests. The only good white man is a dead white man, or one who, like Hugh Glass, has gone native, in the best James Fenimore Cooper tradition. It hardly needs to be said that such depictions seek to redress manifold sins of movies past. And yet, idealization is ultimately as dehumanizing as demonization. One would wish for an occasional moral lapse on Glass’s part. But the wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots.
What’s best in this two-and-a-half hour film that feels much longer is Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeously unhurried cinematography, accompanied by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ghostly score, and supplemented with atmospheric compositions by John Luther Adams, Messiaen, and others; as in Iñárritu’s previous films, including Birdman and Babel, the soundtrack, with its repeated, unresolved chords, is crucial to the action, directing our emotional responses to some mystical realm. The film almost has a surfeit of natural beauty, spangled with glinting sunlight, not always clearly keyed to what’s happening among the human characters. The rushing rivers, the majestic trees, and the frigid winter landscape dwarf the human presence. You half expect, as in Terrence Malick’s similarly meditative Tree of Life, to see dinosaurs lumber into the primeval forest.
What the human characters are up to—in confusing, ever-on-the-move cohorts of French, Americans, and Indians—doesn’t feel like it amounts to much. The sinister Fitzgerald is given the best line in the film, suggesting a certain anarchic randomness in the world of beast and man. “God,” he gnomically proclaims, “is a squirrel.”
Will Glass get his revenge? Do we really care in the end? “Revenge,” as he says in his Pawnee way, “is in the creator’s hands.” Partially buried alive by Fitzgerald, Glass comes back to life, despite seemingly impossible odds, with the coming of spring. He’s a sort of seasonal god, like Osiris, who dies and returns to life, repeatedly. Once, amazingly, he cinctures himself into a horse’s still warm, hollowed-out carcass, another premature burial. “I ain’t afraid to die anymore,” he murmurs. “I done it already.” When he thrashes about with Fitzgerald in their final, seemingly inevitable, bear-hug clinch, the blood spews right onto the camera lens—another ambiguous demonstration of authenticity.
Despite its flimsy historical underpinnings, The Revenant is actually a dream-film throughout. There are sequences—like the improbable dive over a cliff into the waiting arms of a huge tree, or the abandoned cathedral equipped with a Baroque crucifix and a silently swinging bell—where you aren’t quite sure, and you don’t much mind, if what you’re watching is meant to be “really” happening to Hugh Glass or just transpiring in his (or perhaps Iñárritu’s) head. It’s as though Iñárritu has determined that revenants are uniquely prone to dreams (rêves), and that the moviemaker’s job is to fix them with ardor and arduousness.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant will open across the country on January 8.