Nothing New on the Western Frontier

By Kai-Arne Zimny

Credit: Wolf Gang
Cred­it: Wolf Gang

Even though in folk­lore the term revenant stands for a being that has returned from the dead, the recent award-win­ning movie The Revenant (2015), direct­ed by Ale­jan­dro G. Iñár­ritu, is not about a ghost – at least not in a lit­er­al sense. The Revenant’s screen­play is part­ly based on Michael Punke’s nov­el of the same name as well as sev­er­al oth­er books and films of the past that recount a true sto­ry from the ear­ly 1820s: Trap­per Hugh Glass (Leonar­do DiCaprio) sets off on a fur-hunt­ing expe­di­tion in an unnamed and unde­vel­oped U.S. ter­ri­to­ry togeth­er with his half-Pawnee son Hawk (For­rest Good­luck) and a group of men from the Rocky Moun­tain Fur Com­pa­ny led by Cap­tain Andrew Hen­ry (Domh­nall Glee­son). After an attack from an Arikara war band brings the group close to anni­hi­la­tion, the sur­vivors flee and Glass gets wound­ed – seem­ing­ly beyond recov­ery. What unfolds from there is a jour­ney of adver­si­ty, betray­al, greed, loss, and a shim­mer of hope.

Iñárritu’s movie is visu­al­ly intense on many lev­els: The fight scenes feel bru­tal and look real. DiCaprio’s act­ing is extreme­ly phys­i­cal, ooz­ing with strain and pain, yet he doesn’t over­do it: His death-rat­tling fight for sur­vival feels real at all times. The awe-inspir­ing on-screen land­scapes present an eerie back­drop for the dread­ful expe­ri­ences the char­ac­ters have to endure. But for some rea­son, this two-and-a-half-hour movie left me with an unsat­is­fac­to­ry feel­ing – as if it did­n’t mat­ter much to me whether I’d watched it or not. Sim­ply stat­ed: It’s noth­ing new. Sto­ries of sur­vival and revenge have been told since the dawn of time. Besides the pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned over­ar­ch­ing themes, the film falls short in terms of plot devel­op­ment and depth of char­ac­ter. Yes, the con­flict between Amer­i­can set­tlers and Amer­i­can Natives is present in many (part­ly atro­cious) scenes and very blunt­ly depict­ed in a short piece of dia­logue at the begin­ning of the movie when Native leader Elk Dog (Duane Howard) responds to the accu­sa­tion of hav­ing stolen pelts with these thought-pro­vok­ing words: “You all have stolen every­thing from us. Every­thing!” But due to the over­all face­less Native Amer­i­can char­ac­ters – even Glass’ son Hawk remains flat – The Revenant can’t be con­sid­ered a movie that offers a con­vinc­ing Native per­spec­tive. The lines and parts of the movie sound con­trived, sort of crammed into the script in order to pre­vent the Natives from com­ing across as cru­el and evil.

Awards speak a dif­fer­ent lan­guage, though: For The Revenant, Iñár­ritu won this year’s Acad­e­my Award for best direc­tor. For por­tray­ing Hugh Glass, DiCaprio won an Acad­e­my Award as well as a Gold­en Globe for best actor. Even though DiCaprio offered a con­vinc­ing por­tray­al of his char­ac­ter in The Revenant, he has had more chal­leng­ing roles in the past. To me, his first Acad­e­my Award feels more like an ‘it’s‑about-time’ deci­sion on the part of the jury so that DiCaprio would not turn into an Oscar­less ‘ghost.’ But maybe you’d like to be the judge of that…

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