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…

Official Trailer: