"Everything is as it should be."

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The Revenant : A Review





The Revenant, directed by Alejandro G. Innaritu and written by Innaritu and Mark L. Smith (based on the book of the same name by Michael Punke), is the story of hunter and guide, Hugh Glass, who, in 1823 on the northern plains of North America, seeks to avenge a loved one's murder while struggling to survive the uncolonized wilderness and the native tribes that inhabit it. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, and boasts supporting performances from Tom Hardy and Domnhall Gleeson.

 Much has been made about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in the film and his likelihood of winning the Best Actor Oscar at this years Academy Awards. I agree that Dicaprio will win the Oscar, but I disagree that his performance is worthy of such high praise. In fact, this performance seemed like a step back in DiCaprio's artistic evolution. There is a lot of grunting, groaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth, but it all feels forced and frankly, showy. DiCaprio seems to want to indicate how hard he is working, and to his credit he is working very hard, and how much he is "acting". I found the performance heavy-handed, contrived and ultimately off-putting, which was disappointing considering the trajectory of DiCaprio's work in recent years with his truly stellar turns in Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio's performance in The Revenant is along the lines of his work as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which I felt was over-the-top and sub-par to his very high standards.

I am a big fan of actor Tom Hardy as well, but I felt his performance in The Revenant was underwhelming. It is not Hardy's fault, as his character, John Fitzgerald, is terribly under written. Fitzgerald is initially a very compelling character, but is given no dramatic arc, making him a rather hollow character, so we lose interest in him the more we see of him.

Having Fitzgerald be under-written is a big issue for the narrative of the film as well, as we need a much stronger foil for Hugh Glass to be up against in order to make the story more dramatically dynamic. The Fitzgerald character being cursory means that the narrative is never able to flower into anything more than the one-dimensional survival story of Hugh Glass, as opposed to a two-dimensional chase/revenge story, or a three-dimensional story about Glass chasing his psychological shadow in the form of his nemesis Fitzgerald. This is a disappointment as The Revenant has greatness hidden within it on multiple levels, but director Innaritu is unable to mix these potent ingredients together in a satisfactory manner in order to cook up a gourmet cinematic feast, rather we are left with a serving of unseasoned and uncooked bison meat. 

Innaritu, who won a Best Director Oscar last year for Birdman, is a very talented guy, but he has a tendency to make basic structural decisions that frustrate the potential power of his films. He undercuts the mythological flow of his films with foundational flaws that are minor in practice but major in impact. For instance, in Birdman, the ending sequence was held for a scene and a series of beats too long. This flawed climax had the result of watering down and undermining the brilliance that led up to it. In The Revenant, Innaritu again makes a minor structural stumble which stunts the energetic, mythic and psychological flow of the film. Without giving too much away, I will only say that the narratives involving Glass and his own survival and his pursuit of Fitzgerald, don't travel together in a straight line as they should, but rather diverge at a crucial point in the story, much to the detriment of the dramatic flow of the film.

On the bright side, Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates a visual masterpiece by seamlessly weaving his deftly moving camera amidst the stunningly crisp natural beauty of the film's locations. In the last two years, Lubezki has won consecutive Best Cinematography Oscars for his work in Gravity and Birdman (also directed by Innaritu), and it would not be a shock if he won for a third straight time this year for The Revenant. In the last decade, Lubezki's collaborations with Terence Malick on The New World, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, and his work with Alfonso Cauron on Children of Men and Gravity, along with his work with Innaritu (Birdman, The Revenant) prove he is a visual genius of the highest order and a master at the top of his game. The Revenant is worth seeing in the theatre if for no other reason than to see Lubezki's magnificent work up on the big screen.

To be clear, The Revenant is not a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is also not a great one. It is a very dramatically flawed, but visually beautiful, piece of art. It is frustrating to me that the film as a whole could not live up to the potential of its various pieces in the form of a great cast, director and cinematographer. The reality is that The Revenant not only COULD have been better, but it SHOULD have been great. 




A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation:  "As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think." - Joseph Campbell

The Revenant is one of those rare films that is actually much more interesting on the deeper mythological and psychological levels than it is on the entertaining/storytelling level. I found the film intriguing almost despite itself. I do wonder though, if people who do not have my interest and background in Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell's comparative mythology would enjoy the film very much on any of these deeper levels. Regardless, here is a very short breakdown of some of the mythological and psychological imagery used in the story.

The mythology and psychology running through the film is laced with Native American spirituality and symbology. There is a Bear prominent in the story which is the impetus to send Glass on his literal and mythological quest. In native spirituality, Bear medicine symbolizes awakening the power of the unconscious, and in The Revenant, Bear brutally forces Glass to go on his journey deep into the darkest recesses of his psyche and soul to find and heal his true self. Bear instinctively and viciously attacks Glass in order to protect her cubs, leaving him unable to protect his "cub", his son Hawk, from danger. On the epic journey started by Bear, Glass will, as the title of the film suggests (Revenant means "one who has returned, as if from the dead"), die many times and be born again. Like Christ, Glass must die to his old self in order to be born again to his higher self.

Also like Christ, Glass must wander alone through the wilderness in order to be spiritually purified. It is during this "time in the desert", that Glass comes across a fellow wanderer, Hikuc, a Pawnee Indian, who also happens to share the same spiritual/psychological wound as Glass, namely, the deep grief at the loss of his family. Hikuc and Glass share the sacrament of communion in the form of eating raw bison meat. In Native spirituality, Bison, similar to Christ in Christian mythology, is a gift from the Great Spirit meant to nourish and sustain his people. Bison also symbolizes 'right prayer joined with right action'. Once Glass has been purified, and eaten the holy sacrament, he can now move on to the next portion of his journey, the symbolic re-birthing.

Glass rides on the back of Hikuc's horse to the woods where Hikuc prepares a "purifying womb" for him in the form of a sweat lodge. Glass hibernates(Bear medicine) in this sweat lodge, his physical, psychological and spiritual wounds beginning to heal thanks to Hikuc's help. When Glass awakens inside the sweat lodge, the world outside, just like Glass inside the womb, has been changed, having been christened, with a pristine layer of white snow. 

When Glass emerges from the sweat lodge, a place of 'right prayer', he resumes his journey on his own after finding Hikuc "crucified" like Christ and hanging from a tree. Glass continues on and commits an act of 'right action' by saving an Native princess from the same men who sacrificed Hikuc on the tree of life. Having fulfilled the sacred call of the Bison (right prayer joined with right action), he is now fully prepared for the "Great Leap".

A pulsating horse chase follows his saving of the princess that climaxes with Glass making the great spiritual leap from his current state of 'clutching onto the life he has now' to the state of 'letting go in order to embrace the life that is waiting for him'. Glass "dies" on this Great Leap as he rides Hikucs horse over the edge of a cliff. This is followed by Glass, once again, hibernating (Bear medicine) through a blizzard in a makeshift womb, this time in the dead body of his sacred horse mother, and being born anew after surviving a cold, dark night. 

The Great Spirit has, through Bear, Horse and Man(both Native and European), forced Glass to evolve by forging a new spirit, a new soul and a new self. Glass, having survived this crucible, is now sufficiently healed, and prepared to finish his earthly quest and then to shuffle off this mortal coil into the arms of the Great Spirit.

This alchemical cycle of destruction, purification, initiation and reconfiguration is the heart of the psychological myth of The Revenant and is what makes the film so imperative on a much deeper level than it's less than its rather mundane superficial one. Viewing the film through this mythological/psychological prism, makes for a much more satisfying experience. I recommend you do so, for Glass' spiritual journey is the same journey we all must make….the struggle to find meaning in our suffering as we hurtle headlong towards our own inevitable obliteration.