Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Violence in “The Revenant”

I went to see “The Revenant” this past weekend after being encouraged to do so by an acquaintance who knew the film had some relevance to my current writing project. Although I  write about grim and gritty subjects, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the volume of blood and gore on the screen for this one.  There will be spoilers.

I came away feeling that the director wished to express the theme that men are simply brutal to other men whenever they have the chance (and to women, too).  The natives, the Americans, the French all got into the bloody thick of things.  It had a very high body count for a film so focused on a single character.  At times I thought of “Gladiator”, and of “Braveheart” both with notably violent heroes in violent times (both also with spectral love interests–both of which were, IMO, much better done).  But I don’t recall getting splashed with the gore in either of those films, not even during the drawing-and-quartering scene in the latter.

Sometimes a film or author is accused of making bloody violence into a form of pornography.  I wouldn’t say that’s the case here–the violence was not glorified, but rather so relentless that it became depressing.  Because almost all of the characters in the film, regardless of race or standing, seemed willing, and at times, determined, to participate in the gore-fest, it delivered a very negative view of humanity (or perhaps simply of mankind, since most of the violence is perpetrated by and on other men, with the notable exception of a rape-victim’s revenge.)

A violent artistic work, whether it be film or novel, can be uplifting, challenging, disturbing in the end. It can leave you feeling both raw, and fulfilled, if the violence supports that kind of theme.  “The Hurt Locker” has its share of gore, but it is there to both illuminate the experiences of the soldiers, and to reveal the psychological impact of violence on them (and on the viewer by extension).  I have written earlier about a Chinese film, “Shaolin,” that took a very deliberate approach to violence.

In “The Revenant,” the violence seems to have no impact on the participants.  They are no more hesitant (or willing) or perpetrate violence again.  The deaths and maimings are never direct or what might be termed in the chivalric tradition as honorable:  people are often killed while running away, they are beaten when they’re down, unarmed people are slaughtered by the dozen.   The only person killed with a single blow is the protagonist’s son–everyone else requires multiple wounds.

The one clearly honorable character in the film, Captain Henry, the leader of the fur-trapping expedition, seems to exist outside of this cycle of violence, yet he, too, seems barely affected by it until he nearly succumbs toward the end of the film.  One of the native characters, a Pawnee man, says that revenge is in God’s hands, and the repetition of this concept at the end might be seen as some kind of turning point for the protagonist–but the effect is the same (and there has already been an unbelievable river-side gore-fest by that point).

So am I just taking this film a little too hard?  If we trimmed the actual gore seen on screen, would we end up with a different theme?  Unfortunately, I don’t think that would be sufficient.

If the filmmaker had taken a more nuanced approach to the depiction of violence, as well as to when and how it is applied, the work as a whole might have had a very different effect, and these potential twin moments of transformation (the captain’s movement toward violence, the protagonist, Hugh Glass’s movement away from it) might have shone and suggested a more thought-provoking theme than simply that men will relentlessly attack each other.

I knew that vengeance was a major element in the film, but I thought, before going, that the primary thrust of the central narrative would be the protagonist’s fight for survival against the elements of nature (AKA, “man versus nature” in the parlance of your high school English class). It turns out to be almost entirely “man versus man” with a large number of the killings or attempted killings taking place between people who seem to have little reason to assault each other  (the egregious and utterly predictable death of Glass’s Pawnee friend, for instance.) After his initial mauling by the bear, Glass is left in bad shape–but his natural encounters leave him none the worse for wear:  not falling or grinding dirt into his wounds, nor floating for a long way down a frigid river. He has no gloves or mitts, yet he never loses a finger to frostbite–nor even seems very worried about it–he is often depicted quite far away from whatever heat source is available.

The first few scenes of him regaining motion after the mauling show him dragging a leg at a very wrong angle, but this proves to be nothing more than a sprain, I guess, because it is never splinted, and results in only a minor limp by the end.  His injuries seem to heal, rather than to degrade over the course of his adventures.  I’ve taken Wilderness First Aid, and done a fair amount of research on early surgery and wound care.  This film *could* have been about a heroic survival against those kind of odds–if only the actual stakes of his injuries and his travel conditions had been believably presented. He comes through with the only sign of his very, very long exposure to the elements with only chapped lips (next time, go for the bear grease, Leo.)

So there is no balancing of other dangers against that of Man, no sense that the direct challenge to his survival is all around him.

And the motivations of the Arikawa tribe who follow the group of trappers from the bloodbath that opens the movie to the one that finishes it are not borne out in what they do. I found it interesting that some native voices online are praising the film, (one example) not only for its depiction of the presented tribes, but for its honest presentation of the theft of America from the native population, and the many levels of betrayal that took place to accomplish it.  The author of the piece above states that it is this theme that justifies the opening battle–however, that is not how the tribe’s actions are presented in the film–this idea of a justified vengeance on behalf of dispossessed and abused natives only comes up later, and not in reference to this battle.

Instead, the Arikara are seeking the chief’s kidnapped daughter, and apparently the way they look for her is to slaughter everyone available to die, then search the bodies to see if she is there.  Even if their anger against the trappers is justified, or if they are driven also by commerce motivations, the expressed motivation for the act doesn’t fit.  I would assume the chief wanted her back alive, but he seems content to kill first and ask questions later.  Then, when they do get her back, why don’t they simply go home?  Instead, they have apparently pursued Glass or the other trappers back to the fort (and beyond), although the people who kidnapped her were, in fact, already slain by Glass himself.  Vengeance has been served, but they appear at the end to give us one more thrill of danger (will Glass end up as another victim of unjustified murder?) and deliver the final blows (never just one).

The portrayal of a theme is always a bit tricky in a narrative work.  Ideally, all of the elements work together–plots, subplots, character arcs, embedded stories or expressed morality–to convey the creator’s intended message.  I’d have to say that the director has achieved this, it’s just a message I fundamentally don’t believe in.  How about you?

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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