Native Perspectives Film Review: “The Revenant” (2015)



Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Mark L. Smith (screenplay), Alejandro González Iñárritu (screenplay)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson & Full Cast


With its honest portrayal of life spend in nature, the shifts between intense action and often tedious but necessary patient waiting and work, “The Revenant” was rumored to be an unforgettable film centered on Leonard DiCaprio’s performance and it delivered. “The Revenant” is directed by Mexico-born Alejandro González Iñárritu, an award-winning writer, director and producer born, an artist known for works highlighting the complexity of human motivations and needs. Self-described as music more often influencing for his work than other films, one easily discerned this in his latest offering for it was like watching a movie equivalent of a symphony: slow movements, a rising crescendo, and at last a finalé and resolution.

There have been survival dramas in the past, and the closest equivalent I can think of is “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972), whose titular character was played by Robert Redford. A similar theme of vengeance against those who wronged and murdered his adopted native family is central, as well as the poignant ending. DiCaprio’s character Hugh Glass was left to die after a bear attack, though mostly because his former comrades rationalize this eventuality is best to save themselves from threatening natives. Thomas Hardy’s character, John Fitzgerald, is most outspoken to abandon Glass along with a half native son, whose people and all natives John deeply hates. However, he volunteers to stay behind to witness Glass’ passing, but as soon as the others leave his rancor is made evident to both Glass and his son.

Unlike most movies in the past, whether it was entirely absent or confusingly presented, “The Revenant” includes a European character who identifies with or lived in the “native” world, and Glass’ visions of his deceased native wife strengthens his resolve to find his murderous betrayer despite life-threatening injuries. That special connection kept him going, but it also from losing himself in mindless hatred and ultimately useless revenge, which can never undo or bring back the avenged. This quest is the central theme, and his journey through beautiful but treacherous for the unwise and unskilled landscapes provide some of the most “catch your breath” scenes in recent film.

I felt the material, pacing and progression was seamless for the type of story although some critics and viewers have remarked negatively, confused and distracted by Glass’ “flashbacks” or “mystic reveries” of the past. Without need for dialogue or description, key details and events showcase the ugly truths of European invasion and colonization of North America and the brutalization of its peoples whose negative after-effects continue to this very day.

Although DiCaprio is far and away the central star with a powerful performance in which viewers can immerse themselves, Hardy’s supporting performance is so strong you utterly believe him as the despicable coward and cold-blooded killer John Fitzgerald. Domhnall Gleeson is also entirely believable as young Captain Henry, the pragmatic leader of the original fur gathering expedition, who later tries to bring Fitzgerald to justice.

The title, “The Revenant” is apt, suggestively setting the mood and demonstrating the story by description: “a person who returns, especially and supposedly from the dead” yet doesn’t describe just DiCaprio’s character alone. What seems a simple, direct story based on true events has been given multi-layers of meaning for those willing to look beyond the surface or pay open-minded attention throughout its near three hour runtime. 9/10

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As Jesse Wente said in his article at CBC News, “The Revenant” is not an indigenous film. I agree. It is yet another that has the white man front and center, the one who learns native culture, language and lifeways, showing him as the hero and with natives as sidethoughts, backgrounds, though pertinent fixtures. Yet again, DiCaprio’s character represents, as Wente further explains: “the indomitable spirit of the American frontier settler (and) First Nations (or indigenous peoples) are required as an emblem of the wilderness being settled, as this is central to the colonial myth of ‘Manifest Destiny.’ They have to be present in westerns in order to disappear and for America to be born. Glass, as an embodiment of the America frontiersman, must prevail —  thus his ease at adopting indigenous language and his ability to survive events that surely would kill a normal man.”

Despite that, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in the portrayal of events and attitudes of European invaders and colonization in a mainstream film that is still written about and from a non-native POV. The lies and disregard, the casual humiliation, rape and murder of natives just as a daily occurence done without thought, as if they were worthless except for their brief benefit to white men is just as casually “in your face.” Especially at this stage of Anglo incursion, such ones were safe in the knowledge there would be little or no retribution or censure for their acts.

While the events in this film were set during the infancy of the establishment of the US on stolen land, and before the systematic genocide to destroy or subsume all native cultures and people, it shows how such attitudes, ideas and plans formed and continue today. These acts were presented without dialogue or description, no speeches or soapboxing, just stark reality. That really works in “The Revenant”‘s favor and strengthens the setting and overall integrity.

Without regard for the indigenous, their beliefs, views and lifeways, European men pillaged and raped their way across North America. They plundered and ruined peoples, animals and the environment naturally drawing the anger of natives, especially after many of the natives peacefully welcomed them or tried to deal fairly. Natives began reacting more defensively or aggressively in response to brutal European/new American methods. Those soldiers, “explorers” or entrepeneurs who made it back to “civilization” brought tales of “wild men” and savagery, mostly making themselves out to be courageous heroes and the natives villains…when they were the real savages.

Alternatively, you had those who were apathetic to native concerns or just saw them as unfortunate primitives. They didn’t advocate their erasure, but did provide endnotes to what they considered the natives inevitable fate.  Each of these types still often made and/or suppported the policies on natives contributing to attempted genocide and ethnocide. Written and taught US history is filled with strategic mendacity, so much so that many non-natives disbelieve native accounts and information not included in textbooks or which the biased and governmentally backed media spews.

As much as I liked this film, rating it a 9 out of 10, I couldn’t help but ask, why does every film with a similar setting and time period have to be from European perspective? It again reinforces the stereotype and distinct misinformation that somehow only Anglos during this time (or now) spoke, thought and recorded intelligently and in detail. Native American life, such as survived the genocide, is still richly vibrant, beautiful and stunning in its depth. Our peoples have a great range of humorists, thinkers, innovators, leaders, artisans and more, past and present, but this is not how we are presented. Therein is the greatest problem: its how THEY present or don’t present us. Studies have shown films and media representation of cultures other than one’s own are often believed especially when shown repeatedly and if made by someone of one’s own group, particularly by those who have little or no meaningful personal contact with minorities/ethnicities.

I challenge you to name a big studio film that includes natives from a native perspective or by a native writer. I challenge you to name any midlevel or any level studio or producer who has accepted such a script or story and/or without changing it to be from European perspective or with a  European central character. That’s BS but understandable, they know what their ancestors did to natives whether they will admit it or not, or that the aftereffects are present to this day in treatment of natives. They don’t want to touch it and/or delude themselves and others that “mainstream America” just isn’t interested in such. So, we have to do it for ourselves. That’s a hard task, just like everything else, but we can do it. We should and we must tell our own stories, especially for the benefit of our youth. Multiple studies from the American Psychology Association and others confirm stereotypes and caricatures of natives have severely impacted and continue to harm our children.

Films and portrayals that dehumanize, stereotype or caricaturize natives or present a European or Anglo perspective on natives are unacceptable but rampant, whether they are well-liked classics or panned failed comedies (looking at Sandler). We must reject, challenge and protest such films and it is vital to our well-being and future, among other things, to write, produce and direct stories about ourselves so that our beliefs, lifeways, cultures and histories are accurate.


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