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The Revenant

Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture has put into the ring another masterpiece of filmmaking art. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and The Revenant could not be simultaneously both further apart and yet strikingly similar. The uniting factor is the director’s interest in the interplay between the supernatural and the imaginative.

Birdman is set in New York City in the present day. It is a tour de force about a famous celebrity’s slow slide into madness triggered by a desire to be accepted by the artistic community. The film opens with its main character, Riggan Thompson (played by Michael Keaton), apparently meditating in his dressing room, dressed only in his briefs. Slowly, the viewer realizes he is floating several inches off the table where you thought he was sitting. The movie throughout shows him with supernatural powers—to fly above New York City like Birdman or destroy cars with lightning bolts summoned at the snap of his fingers. The controversial end of the film is complicated by the uncertainty the viewer has whether he has committed suicide or flown off into the sky.

In many ways The Revenant could not be more different. Bloody in the extreme, it is based on a novel, which has fictionalized a true story from the 1820’s. The movie relates the survival and revenge journey of Hugh Glass, a trapper in the wilds of Canada. Glass, after being attacked by a bear, is left for dead by two fellow trappers who were supposed to watch over him until he either recovered enough to be moved or died. He uses his considerable talent to get back to civilization, and the movie reaches its climax in the face-to-face meeting of Glass and his nemesis John Fitzgerald, played by the extraordinary Tom Hardy. Equal parts story of survival and revenge, the movie has none of the interaction between madness and reality Birdman has, but that doesn’t mean it is not heavily mythological or psychological or both.

The psychological investigations of The Revenant are embedded, not in mad visions, but in the dreams and visions Glass has of his wife and son, whose appearances inspire him to continue to move forward sometimes literally inch by inch. The supernatural occurs in The Revenant in much more traditional ways than in Birdman. Glass sees his wife and son in the ruins of a church, in the trees of a forest, in the plains floating above his face, as he lies in the grass. Many, if not all, of his visions are in dreams as he goes in and out of consciousness; as he puts it at one point, “I ain’t afraid of dying; I done it already”. Since Glass is in danger the entire film from either other humans or the simple, raw dangers of the mountainous terrain surrounding him, it is safe to say the visions are a feature of the danger and fear he inhabits.

Glass’s hallucinations are clearly that in The Revenant, but they are not treated as unreal. Belief in the reality of the spirit world is of course well-known in Native American lore, and Glass, who lived among the Pawnee Indians and speaks Pawnee fluently, has every reason to be susceptible to its influence. Add to this that the only two people—in fact, things at all—that he seems to have ever cared about are the son he had by a Pawnee woman and the woman herself, who was killed in a raid by American soldiers, played in flashback several times in the movie. Iñárritu has incorporated a more traditional “magical realism” into this film, than he did in Birdman, and it works very well. Right up until the end, Glass’s survival seems tied to his belief that he is honoring his wife and son by both surviving and seeking revenge.

This film is brutally gory, but still remarkably engaging for most of its 2½ hours. The first time I saw it I thought it was over-long, but a second viewing discovered so much detail, particularly in the performances, that the movie actually went faster since I knew what was coming in the story-line. Almost everyone has mentioned the work of Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Glass, but Hardy certainly earned his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Domnhall Gleeson, Will Poulter and Forrest Goodluck turn in stellar work of their own. The Revenant has garnered twelve Oscar nominations, rewarding a rich tapestry of cinematography, production design, make-up and special effects that make the movie a visual delight.

The Revenant is not for the squeamish, but is well-worth seeing. The discussions are legion one could have about dreams and their reality in addition to the obvious themes of revenge, survival, the difficulty of decision-making and human nature in general. And the ending, which I will not reveal, is worthy of a discussion of its own.

Drew Trotter

January 9, 2016

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