A revenant is a medium from the netherworld, a Lazarus who returns to us as a ghost. This potent noun echoes. We hear revenge in it. And revelry provides a second reverberation. French in origin, le revenant literally means ghost. Its source is revenir: to return, about which we may also associate rêver: to dream. The Oxford English Dictionary adds an obscurity: That which is pleasing.
It's an excellent title and sets a high bar for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. The film fails in some ways, by direction and spiritual emptiness, which I discuss later, but it also succeeds in creating a rushing cinematic experience, abstractly organized, if you like, by the title’s combination of factors. Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Hugh Glass, is not exactly a ghost, but he has returned from the dead.
So, the cinematic rush, to wit: A skilled trapper, a white man, is mauled by a bear protecting her cubs. A son from two cultures is murdered. A father is left for dead and half buried. False honor gets paid. Blood money maps the path to revenge. Mythology is propelled forward through starvation-induced hallucinations. Needed dreams are beautiful, if perhaps overly opiatic and too Tarkovskian, sometimes verging on peyotl cliché. False courage of unjust murder blooms in a weak man as he is tracked and killed. Ritual and retribution are excised at a high cost. Revenge almost becomes God’s business, but not quite.
Such is our cinematic meal. In our individual cocoons in the theater's darkness, safe from the outside world, it feels easy to imagine ourselves as passive vessels. Film’s images and sounds pour in. Our soft and sated bodies warmed by its aural and visual beauty.
But maybe film isn't exactly consumption in that sense, maybe not just the mowing of psychic calories. Perhaps film is also liminal, a threshold over which we pass. I don’t define liminality as precisely as anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner do, in part due to the cultural norm of film-viewing passivity and cinema’s lack of structured rites, but the definition helps us: Anthropological liminality is ritual ambiguity where proscribed rites excite visions, sometimes dark and righteous, through which participants pass. Along the way, they (we) may encounter mirrored beings, monsters of the liminal state, that reflect society’s ills. To my mind, film does this to greater or lessor degrees, perhaps more so now as our world becomes engulfed in visual language delivered primarily by the internet: moving images as digitally structured liminal rites.
Which brings me to pain and violence. There is little doubt in my mind that pain and violence are more widely perceived now, in frightening and glassy forms, than ever before in humanity’s history. The global availability of real images of murder and torture, such as the widely publicized ISIS decapitations or the torture at Abu Graib (and there are many, many more examples), is a new phenomenon. We don't yet know its affect, but it feels grim. There was a time when snuff films were very much a disturbing taboo, obscure and horrible crimes carried out in the backwaters of cinema. (Are they even real, or are we just fascinated by them? I was never quite sure.) Today, and everyday, many thousands of real lives are snuffed out as we watch. The dead bodies become digital ghouls, gliding over us and around us, a vast scream of horror that has risen to a screechy pitch we are scarcely able to perceive. We watch and turn away… and watch again. Are we able to generate empathy in the face of this onslaught?
Aside from being horrified by the acts and then horrified again by my own insufficient responses — fear, anger, resignation, maybe a post on social media — I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all. It simultaneously feels removed from meaning and yet it seems to spin an enchanting and hostile web of materialism or propaganda all around us. I think it is fundamentally changing how we know each other. And it certainly confuses the fictional representation of violence.
In his review for The New Yorker, Richard Brody writes that a lack of humor in The Revenant is a potential sign of weak storytelling and thin imagination, that the film's purported seriousness creates a compensatory mask that hides emptiness. Perhaps.
I like Brody's tidy idea, but is humor really at issue? The Revenant is bloody and solemn, but it’s not the most humorless thing you can see, and certainly not the most vapid of all violent films out there right now, although some reviewers might lead you to that conclusion. And there are, in fact, a couple of mildly humorous scenes. Snowflakes on the tongue, for example. To me, Brody’s notion seems more like a wish that he had watched a different film, rather than an observation of what The Revenant is.
And yet, stepping back from Iñárritu's 196 minutes, there was humor elsewhere, around it. A strangely gleeful and giggling marketing campaign emerged with both Iñárritu and DiCaprio, and the rest of the crew, trotting out various production stories of the he-man ilk. It almost felt for a moment as though the lived experiences of the production had become more important than the film itself. Iñárritu eventually stepped away from that branding strategy, but why did he decide to put DiCaprio and the rest of the cast through really difficult scenes in the first place?
One answer that Iñárritu provides is that he wanted the visual and aural texture that comes from people actually going through trials in the places where the trials took place. Fair enough. As a filmmaker, I can sympathize with this technique and used it in A Man Full of Days. We shot in torrential summer downpours and winter temperatures approaching zero Fahrenheit. Actor Brandon Nagle took it on the chin and did a great job.
But I suspect there may also be a collective desire, in a liminal sense, to get closer to the death and horror that plagues us. Naturally, we fear the real thing, but films like The Revenant may also soothe a conscience that soaks up the oily queasiness resulting from viewing real human suffering and death on a daily basis.
Have we invented a poisoned form of entertainment in the way we cover ISIS or Abu Graib as news? I believe we have and that it's deeply traumatic for human emotions, even if you steel yourself with the fact that you can't do anything about it. The glee of killing has become almost normative, as we saw so well articulated in Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, but where is the solemnity and honor we owe to death? Would adding humor to violent fiction change this moral crisis and help us see more clearly? I don't think so, but it could. Does real suffering by actors make the story more resonant? Probably not, but I do wonder about that somewhat dangerous idea. Either way, The Revenant does seem to lack... Is it courage? Maybe it's an inability to fully embrace the violence it sets in motion. We may laugh, as some people did in the theater when I saw the film, but it's that tense, unhappy clipping, a painful chirp of discomfort and guilt.
Of course, unlike me, some people hated this film. “The Revenant is Meaningless Pain Porn” is the title of a widely read article in The Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr. To paraphrase Cadwalladr’s critique: There is so much real violence in the world — like, look at ISIS! — why on Earth do we need a fictionalized version that people pay for the privilege of seeing?
In Cadwalladr's words, “There’s a crucial difference between us and the people we are currently trying to blow to smithereens with million-pound missiles: we choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” Cheekily, with self-assurance and sarcasm, she writes, “arguably, [The Revenant is] not as immersive as putting a camera in a cage and then setting a man on fire. Have you seen that one? Where the man is burned alive? It’s not by González Iñárritu, but ISIS. It wasn’t nominated for anything but the pain is even more real, more visceral, more – what was the word, thrilling? – than DiCaprio’s.”
The ISIS video certainly will not win any awards in a conventional sense, but ISIS often creates a global sensation from which they benefit and from which our commercial news outlets profit. There’s big money in beheadings and people watch them for complex reasons, some of which may reveal the dark horror of voyeuristic sadism or, I would hope, an attempt to understand the world around us.
And, yet, I find that I don’t have a lot of patience for Cadwalladr's line of thinking. Her "crucial difference" looks more like critical similarities to me. And what does it do for us? What is her point, exactly? Is it that if we are going to show violence, we should only show the real thing? Or when we fictionalize it, we shouldn't make it so visceral? In actual fact, the period that The Revenant explores was intensely violent and genocidal. If we told stories about this time without the violence we could easily get trite sentimentality, like we apparently do with A Birthday Cake for George Washington, the children’s book that Scholastic recently pulled over criticism that it made slavery seem upbeat and fun.
Pain is fair too complex an experience to be reserved solely for the most honorable reactions to easily distinguished moments of real human suffering. To witness and judge the hideousness of human effigies or beheadings provides firm footing for justifiable moral outrage. No question. In some ways, the very discomfort that Cadwalladr feels is one of the stronger reactions fiction can generate. The hope is that the best storytellers among us can help us understand what the fuck is going on.
Maybe a better question to ask is why this film, and the way it was produced, exists now alongside the pronounced visual assault of actual death that has become available to us through the internet. What is the ideological formation of violence in our age? Novelists have begun to grapple heavily with this. Elfriede Jelinek, Roberto Bolaño, Stieg Larsson, Marlon James, and Eka Kurniawa have all demonstrated enthusiasm to depict the violence of our age. And their work has been rewarded time and again. Why?
The Revenant is a pretty film. And it keeps pace in a rush of blood and thrill. But it's also nearly devoid of the spirit, import, or moral heft it seems to take so seriously. DiCaprio is not a ghost, but he is something like the walking dead. As such, The Revenant devolves into a pop culture threshold, insufficient in courage to handle the meaning of murdered spirits that pass through our eyes and into our minds each day.
POSTSCRIPT ON TECHNIQUES
Although cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has an eye for beauty, Iñárritu’s cinematic vernacular feels a bit tacky and thoughtless to me, even phony. There's the silliness of the Empire Strikes Back rip off during which DiCaprio, like Luke Skywalker and his trusted tauntaun many years before, uses the gut of a dead horse to keep from freezing. And the overused references to Tarkovsky often seem forced and show-off-y, so much so that a Russian filmmaker by the name of The Petrick created a rather revealing mashup of side-by-side images comparing Iñárritu to Tarkovsky. We appear to live in a superficial world. Does that change the depth of its meaning?
On sound design and score, I thought the film was wonderfully constructed and the music gorgeous. There's too much in it to write about here, but I was very happy to listen to the film in a theater.