There is something apocryphal circulating about The Revenant that stems, I feel, from a misreading of director Iñárritu’s intentions, due in large part to its contextual lack of female characters. The Revenant is by all accounts overwhelmingly physical and descriptive of the survivalism of male characters in the untamed wilderness. It also follows one man’s course of revenge against another. But these are like threads stitched through a much larger swath, that includes the weather and the landscape as much as the fraught subtext of the 1820’s frontier. The Revenant is not merely a reductive meditation on masculinity, nor is it purely a hyper masculine showcase. To the contrary, I would describe it as being a study of grief that is masculine in content but female/maternal in aspect. This grief is both specific to lives of its characters, but also entwined in the difficult and often shameful history of this nation’s coming to be.
The Revenant claws, scrapes, hunts and churns its way across the 1820’s Montana and Dakota wilderness, but it also breathes, is patient, it watches and expresses itself with remarkable fluidity. The camera soaks in the natural light and curves in its movements. It encircles men in radial strokes to show them as individuals surrounded in all directions by Mother Nature herself, who (for me) is the true primary character and perhaps is the very lens of the film itself. Thus my experience of The Revenant, through its continuous and unblinking eye, is profoundly and perceptibly female. The omnipresent Mother Nature sets all conditions, giveth and taketh away. Furthermore the women (Glass’s wife and Powaqa the captive), in their non-presence (indeed their revocation at the hands of men), spur the course of events entirely.
What I feel after some contemplation, is that The Revenant is, among many things, a revenge film about the absence of women that is imagined within the expanses of mother nature. That is to say, it is one of its subjects, not mere incidence. In this regard The Revenant is unfortunately an outlier in a sea of films that marginalize women through sheer and sweeping ineptness.
Where the views of the men of The Revenant are confined to the moment, to reactivity, nature’s view is broad, her actions more thoughtful of time. Glass possesses some of this patience to exert his will to avenge his teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) murdered by the hands of sociopath John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). The absence of women – in the particular and in the general – and the longing for a female presence is distinctly felt by both the Arikara (who search for their stolen Powaca [Melaw Nakehk’o]) and by Glass (who is haunted by his Pawnee wife’s ghost [Grace Dove]), in an almost entirely unsexualized manner. This is what is so important in discussing a work of art that is critiqued for its ostensible testosterone. Even at the apex of the film, so close to the fruition of revenge, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) takes a moment, dwarfed-yet-highlighted by a stark white vista, to talk with Glass about how he fears the difficulty of remembering his wife’s face, making ever more salient the theme and tying it to the sustaining discord.
The absence of women (as well as the metered pace) throughout the film creates such a vacuum, and such strife within that vacuum that it expresses female power by negation and entwines it in the historical fabric. Within that void, the female dimensions of nature seem to respond to express them selves more potently. It is a protective mother Grizzly that nearly shreds Hugh Glass to pieces…twice. She strips his skin open for us to see the animal that hides inside him. After surviving the savage attack he dons her pelt (…or in some way, is she wearing him?). Due to the resultant wounds on his throat, able only to growl and breathe coarsely, Glass becomes an animal of no words, protected by the fur on his journey, sounding ever more like the mother bear. Later in the film, how can one mistake the look of Glass’s face wrapped in the vaginal folds of the hollowed out horses gut as something other than a child in the womb, surviving the snowstorm within the mother. I immediately recalled the moment in Gravity (2013) when Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), now “safe” in the space station, takes off her suit and floats like a baby in a womb, warm light backlighting her gentle spin. Gravity is a fantastic companion to The Revenant, with a woman at the center on her own obsessive path, in her own hostile world, searching for the will to live, burdened by a private existential struggle. In Cuaron’s film, nature itself is negated in the vacuum of space. The distinctness of space and the self gives Gravity its power, just as the entanglement of Nature and the self gives The Revenant its power. Both she and Glass seek to forgive themselves. Their names, Stone and Glass, are brilliant opposites and represent them fully. She is opaque about her suffering and seeks distraction and quiet, but Glass is utterly transparent about his goal (save for perhaps some ambiguities about his past), though he too seeks a kind of quiet.
While The Revenant unfolds as a long brutal sequence, it contains much grace and sensitivity, as Nature can be both terrible and beautiful simultaneously. Glass lying his head on the chest of his deceased son, resolved to pass away with him, or catching snowflakes on his tongue with Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud) the Pawnee that befriends him in his desperate travels… these moments bring out such memorable feelings of compassion and humanity amongst the bloodshed. There is something childlike, if not also maternal about Hikuc’s unhesitant aid, whom Glass owes his life to. Indeed, Glass owes his life to the generosity of many people and many things other than himself. These exhales of grace are continuous with the carnage, because the The Revenant is obsessive, as Hugh Glass is obsessive. All is swept up in the current, including the quiet. Glass’s vengeance path is set before him in a landscape where only survival can exist besides, and so if there is a degree of repetition and distillation within the film – repeatedly recalling his wife’s words (his almost singular source of strength) like the sound of wind through trees, and her image that ghostly permeates his mind – it is because obsession is repetitive and distilled, as is survival. Glass’s lasting image of his wife’s face, hair blowing in the wind, possesses the power of a still image, within which one can read her inner strength. It is an image which outlasts because of its finiteness. In that way, we have only what Glass himself has, her constant echo, which both spurs him on and stings him with grief.
The Revenant is suitably contemporaneous to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A film regarding the absence of women alongside a film regarding the presence of women (in ways that make me so very proud), both expressing female power in opposite measures, both worlds feeling like a Galaxy Far Far Away (in setting, and in the realization that much progress has yet to be made in a balancing of the gender scale). Ultimately, The Revenant may in fact be about the death of the “primal male” so to speak. Consider who dies and who lives, the qualities that those individuals possess, and that may tell you. The self-serving, deceptive and aggressive Fitzgerald is survived by Glass, who though capable of great violence is also demonstratively noble and generous. The young Bridger (Will Poulter), sensitive and compassionate Bridger who altruistically chose to stay behind with Glass to see through his unlikely survival, who gives his food to a Native woman who survived the burning of her village… it is he who outlives as well. His name too is a poetic thing, because he figuratively bridges the gap from the “primal male” to the “new male”. The gift of cinema is that it is present tense. It allows Bridger to be his namesake. It also allows Glass’s final look into the camera that begs so many silent questions, to feel like they are being asked of the viewer. “What am I now that I have outlived my vengeance? What am I if I am to let go of my grief.” Is there a world for him?