Reel Talk

The Revenant: An Uneven Art-Film About the Horror of Manifest Destiny

Revenant Poster

I really liked Birdman. It definitely had issues, but overall I really enjoyed that movie, and though it was one of the best of 2014. So I was looking forward to future work from Alejandro Inarritu. And I was of course excited when I heard that his next project was going to be a movie based on the true story of Hugh Glass, which is a truly ridiculous and wonderful story that I love a lot. It’s a crazy story about perseverance and the strength of the human spirit. So I went into this movie with some high hopes. A good story, a strong cast, and interesting director, probably going to be a home run right?

It’s pretty good. This movie didn’t blow me away, but it’s pretty good. Birdman had a lot of flaws, like all movies, but I found that movie easier to forgive and ignore than some of the problems with this movie. Now, I’m going to get into this more after a plot description, but the main issue I had with this movie was that it kind of felt like two movies. There were two very different things trying to be accomplished at the same time, and for me the two halves never really meshed well. It resulted in a kind of watered down movie that could have been great if it just fully embraced either of the two concepts it was trying to chase.

Now, the plot of the movie is roughly based on the true story of Hugh Glass, which I fully recommend learning about, because it’s crazy. There are several books written about Hugh Glass, but if you’re in the mood for a hilarious look at the story, I recommend checking out the episode of the wonderful podcast the Dollop that discusses the story. The movie follows Hugh Glass, a frontiersman, fur-trapper, and explorer who is helping a hunting-party in their search for furs. He’s there with his son Hawk, who is half-American Indian, and is really more of a guide than a fellow hunter of the group. The leader of the expedition is Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who is in charge of this group of angry hunters that include the villainous John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and idealistic Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). The other hunters are a little wary of Glass, since he’s lived with the American Indians, and even has a son that’s no fully white. But he gets things done and he’s a good guide, so they deal with him. But things change when Glass goes out to hunt on his own, and comes across two bear cubs. Before he can react to his discovery he’s attacked by the protective mother bear, and it mauls the hell out of him. His arms, legs, back, and throat are gashed up by the bear, and he finally gets it to stop attacking him when he stabs it to death. The rest of the party then find him, trapped at the bottom of a hill with a dead Grizzly on top of him, and they start to try to save him. He’s in terrible shape, but Captain Henry does his best to stitch him up. And they keep him alive, but in desperate need of real medical attention, so they begin heading back to the Fort that represents civilization to them.  So they make a stretcher and start the arduous task of getting back to the Fort, complete with the depression that they lost most of their furs when they had to flee from an attack from Pawnee Indians. They start trudging back through the frozen wastes, and quickly realize that it’s going to be too hard to do with Glass. So Captain Henry decides that they’re going to keep Glass in the woods, with three men guarding him and taking care of him until he dies, because he’s clearly not going to make it. So his son Hawk, Jim Bridger, and John Fitzgerald decide to stay behind and deal with Hugh until he dies.

Revenant Foam Mouth

And while Hawk and Bridger actually want to take care of Glass, and keep him comfortable until he dies, Fitzgerald is immediately bored with the situation, and start actively encouraging them to just kill Glass and leave. The other two keep shooting this down, but when Bridger goes to fish in the lake, and Hawk is off somewhere else, Fitzgerald decides to smother Glass and put him out of his misery. But Hawk ends up seeing this, and stops Fitzgerald from murdering his father, which pisses Fitzgerald off and he ends up stabbing Hawk to death. Now with a murder on his hands, Fitzgerald start lying like crazy, and tells Bridger that there’s a party of Indians coming for them, and they have to get out quick. So they toss Glass in an empty grave and head out, leaving him alive and furious that his son has just been murdered in front of his eyes. And as Fitzgerald and Bridger head out, Glass ends up digging deep down and letting his fury take control of himself. he claws his way out of his grave, and after paying his respects to his son’s corpse, he being the long, arduous task of healing himself and getting back to the Fort to get vengeance on Fitzgerald.

And that’s pretty much the rest of the movie. Fitzgerald and Bridger get back to the fort, and Fitzgerald convinces Captain Henry that Glass died and they did everything they could. And while that’s going on, Glass is recuperating and traveling through the woods, avoiding animals, members of the Pawnee tribe, rival French fur-traders, and just generally trying to survive. He comes across a lone Indian man and the two hang out for a while, while Glass heals. Glass comes across a group of French fur-traders who have a Pawnee woman captive, and frees her while stealing one of their horses. But he ends up falling off a cliff with the horse, and has to sleep inside the horse like a Tauntaun. But he finally gets back to the Fort, and everyone freaks out. Captain Henry is furious at Fitzgerald and Bridger, but it turns out Fitzgerald fled the Fort when he first heard Glass was back, and is completely gone. Captain Henry and Hugh head back out into the woods to find Fitzgerald. They end up splitting up, and Fitzgerald murders Captain Henry while making it look like an Indian attack to try and keep Glass off his trail. But it doesn’t work, and Glass ends up confronting Fitzgerald next to a river, and the two have an incredibly brutal and  violent fight that ends with both of them being a bloody mess. And Glass pushes Fitzgerald into the river so he can wash further down the stream and get killed by the waiting Pawnee Indians, who are happy with Glass that he freed the chief’s daughter from the French traders. And that’s the end.

Revenant Bear Coat.jpg

This movie is very strange. Mainly because there really did seem to be two different stories trying to be told. One was a gritty frontier revenge story that’s mostly based on fact, and the other is a meditative art-film about how terrible Manifest Destiny was and how badly Americans treated the American Indians. I really have no problem with art-films, movies that are more focused on the visuals and artistry for the shots. But I feel like it’s kind of an odd choice for a revenge story about a grizzled The artistic shots did work when we were seeing Hugh Glass’ fever dreams, but other than that it felt a little out of place with the story being told. Meanwhile, the movie would occasionally got off on these tangents that seemed based completely around the devastation that the American people committed on the American Indians. Which is an important thing to discuss, it’s just a little shoehorned into this story. The movie made up a lot of things for the story. Hugh Glass wasn’t motivated by the death of his fictional son, he went after Fitzgerald more because the guy disrespected him and took his stuff. He didn’t come across a loner Indian man who taught him how to heal himself, he already knew how to do all of that, and did it himself. From what I can tell, Hugh Glass didn’t have any issues with the American Indians, and seemed fond of their culture, but this movie seemed to try and push the American Indian narrative into the story at any chance it could. I’ll say again, I think that narrative is a very important and undeserved one, it just felt weird for this story. I would have loved to see Innaritu make an arty meditation on the atrocities committed to the native people, it just felt a little odd seeing it sandwiched in between a straight-forward revenge plot. It’s like they either wanted to make the revenge movie, or an movie about the genocide of the American Indians, and decided neither story could carry a movie by itself, so they smooshed them together.

This wasn’t a bad movie, just a little uneven. Things could have been streamlined or changed to make it a little more palatable, but as it stands it’s just kind of a slow, dull movie that was trying to juggle too many things. It’s an interesting story, blandly told, with a few too many fictional additions made to make the story more Hollywood and palatable. The acting was good, even though I feel like a lot of the attention Leo is getting revolves around the terrible shooting of the film, and less what he’s actually doing in the movie. I kind of feel like a documentary about this movie could be more interesting than it was. I hear things about the crazy filming process, or the fact that the only filmed in natural light, and it makes me think this movie could have a great documentary like Hearts of Darkness. But as it stands, the actual movie we got is okay, not great, but not terrible. Although I will say, as soon as I realized that the American Indians in the movie were Pawnee, I couldn’t help but think of Parks and Recreation gags for most of the movie in my head.

The Revenant was written by Mark L Smith and Alejandro Inarritu, directed by Alejandro Inarritu, and released by 20th Century Fox, 2015.

Revenant Ken Hotate


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