Sunday, January 17, 2016

When the Heart Bleeds: A Review of Iñárritu’s Latest Film, The Revenant

By Guest Blogger Maritza Alvarez

“My heart bleeds, but revenge is in the Creator's hands”
-Hikuc (The Revenant, 2015)
Hugh Glass (DiCaprio)
Standing Before a Pyramid of Bison Skulls

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s most recent film, The Revenant, is a period piece intimately told. It awakens the senses and repeatedly wrings at the chest, making the heart bleed. Iñárritu’s film gives us multi-dimensional characters, minimal dialogue, breathtaking cinematography, impeccable sound design, poetic editing and phenomenal performances. Loosely based on Michael Punke's novel, The Revenant follows the account of an early 1800's American fur trapper, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). During the film, we accompany Glass on his relentless quest for revenge after surviving a brutal wrestling match with an angry momma grizzly bear. Glass' revenge is not targeted at the grizzly but rather at his peer John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who out of greed and self-interest attempts to murder Glass when he is at his most vulnerable state--injured and immobile due to the grizzly's recent attack. Fitzgerald commits other heinous crimes against Glass before abandoning him to die in the gelid wilderness.

Glass (DiCaprio) Left for Dead After Grizzly Attack

As the story unfolds, we witness the protagonist's relentless determination to physically endure the harsh conditions and terrain. Through Hugh's journey, we are introduced to the key characters that essentially help to keep Hugh Glass alive. Glass’s deceased Pawnee wife (Grace Dove) flies in and out of his dreams, providing him the required strength to keep trekking onward. Through her visits, we witness the plight of the destruction of her village and people.  Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Hugh's only son, is half-Pawnee and half-white, and as a result he gets called a “half-breed dog” by some of other fur traders. Although Hawk verbally defends himself, Glass immediately reminds his son that if he wants to stay alive, he must remain invisible and keep his mouth shut, because they (the White men) do not hear him. They only see the color of his face.

Glass and Young Hawk

Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), a Pawnee man, travels south to reconnect with extended family. He has compassion for Glass’s needs and admires his determination to survive from the vicious bear attack. Hikuc befriends Glass and gently doctors him during a severe winter storm. Then there is Pawaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), the Sioux daughter of Elk Dog (Duane Howard), who is abducted and repeatedly raped by a band of American fur traders. She is later assisted by Glass, and has the opportunity for sweet revenge. Throughout the scenes with these secondary characters, stunning cutaways are creatively utilized to allow the audience a moment to reflect, and to catch a much needed breath.

Duane Howard as Elk Dog

Although the film does have indigenous characters and storylines, it's important to note that The Revenant is ultimately not an indigenous story. It's the story of a white man, just like Birdman was the story of a white man. The fact that a Mexican director is behind the scenes of these white American stories is what intrigues. Iñárritu gives Americans exactly what they want (think The Fugitive meets Dances With Wolves) but always with a bit of a twist. Through the character of Hugh Glass, Iñárritu skillfully appeals to the general American audiences' narcissistic desire to see themselves portrayed as the all-American hero. Iñárritu, however, uses his all-American hero to inject social and historical elements into the film that are rarely explored in Hollywood. The film, for instance, does shed some light on the often overlooked American and French’s violent treatment of First Nations peoples (Arikaree and Pawnee), and the ongoing rape and pillaging of the women and the land which was justified by Manifest Destiny and American capitalism.

Perhaps the most interesting thread in the film is nature. Early on, Hugh's encounter with the grizzly is symbolic of the overall theme: man vs. nature. From the onset, the audience is captivated by the silences and sounds of mother nature and her vast photogenic landscapes. It was the nature in this movie that continuously impressed me and enhanced the overall drama and action.

Mother nature becomes a full-fledged character in this film. From the extreme close-up shots of the golden autumn leaves frozen in winter ice, we see her beauty. From the torrential teal waterfall glaciers surrendering to the roaring river, we hear her songs. And from the glistening dense emerald forests, where sunlight rays extend their hands for a dance with the hanging moth strands on giant pine trees, we feel her tenderness. As a viewer, one is transported into the grand vastness of mother nature and her profound spiritual and physical powers. The audience is pulled into the story at every juncture and often times reminded to stop and pay attention to the full spectrum of the beauty that lies within the landscape, from the macro to the micro. We can’t help to be humbled by her grandness and awe-struck by her fierce and gentle strength. We are virtually guided to reconnect to her in order to better understand the harsh juxtapositions between nature and man. In this way, we are reminded that mother nature, like man, is complex. She cannot be understood in singular terms. For man to attempt to understand her, he must listen, keenly observe, and ultimately maintain an intimate and reciprocal relationship with her and all her inhabitants. As a human species, in order to survive and to evolve, man must connect with her on her terms. Iñárritu creates an exemplary film to remind us of this simple but profound truth.

 Iñárritu: Borrowed from Getty Images

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