The Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti, who, like many of his contemporaries, became a fascist, wrote that “any work of art that lacks a sense of aggression can never be a masterpiece.”
Although a film set in the American wilderness in the 1820s might seem a world away from the hyper-modern, industrial preoccupations of that movement, something of that idea is suggested by The Revenant. It is a difficult film to watch, and not only in its bloodier, flesh-tearingly violent moments: it is frequently disorienting, the shots jumping from close ups of snails’ shells, plant stalks, or the eyes of horses, to sweeping landscape shots or kaleidoscopic geometries of tree branches.
The sound editing is jarring too, with its sparse musical soundtrack punctuated with the amplified buzzing of a fly, or the rushing of the wind. Much of its climactic sequence is overlaid with a constant, high-pitched, piercing whistle. It is, at times, a genuine physical challenge for a viewer. That, undoubtedly, is the point. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu brings the audience into the gruelling struggle of the film’s characters, placing us within the action. At one point, a character’s breath clouds the lens of the camera. At another, it runs wet with melting snow.
“Masterpiece” is too big a word for an amateur film critic writing reviews in a Trotskyist weekly to deploy, but The Revenant unquestionably has “a sense of aggression”. It goes beyond aggression, into visceral brutality.
Many mainstream reviews of The Revenant have described it as a “survival film”. It can indeed be read as such, an exploration of the human will to survive, to overcome any obstacle to simply go on living. But it also, and perhaps more fundamentally, uses the backdrop of the dispossession of the indigenous peoples of America by European settlers to explore the nature of savagery.
It almost feels as if we’re being asked to decide what is most savage — the wild bear who literally savages DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass; or the Arikara (“Ree”) Indian warbands who scalp their enemies; or the white, colonial-racist trappers and traders, “shooting civilisation” into the natives. One might conclude that human life is an intermeshing net of competing savageries, all set against the savagery of the natural world. When a group of French trappers capture and execute a Pawnee Indian, they attach a legend to his corpse which reads “On est tous des sauvages”: “We are all savages”, or, “we are all wild”. Here is nature red in tooth and claw for sure, and savages we all may be, but, as Orwell might have put it, “some are more savage than others”.
Reading the film against the historical period it depicts must resist a “levelling out” of the savagery: the “savagery” of an indigenous people resisting systematic robbery and quasi-genocide cannot be equated with the “savagery” of those carrying it out. The true story of Hugh Glass, upon which the film was based, was spun into the legendary fabric of early American nationhood: the indomitable spirit of the frontier, overcoming the elements to build a civilisation. Iñárritu uses that story to confront, rather than affirm, that legend. He reminds America that its nationhood is built on brutality, on savagery — and not, in the first instance, from the alleged “savages”.
To say more about ‘The Revenant’, I would have to watch it again. It is perhaps to the film’s credit that this is not something I feel I will be able to do easily.
Finally, a note on DiCaprio. Arguably the finest Hollywood leading man of his generation, he looks set to finally secure an Oscar for his role in The Revenant (this is his fifth nomination). If you’re a Hollywood leading man, one supposes Oscars matter, and few could begrudge DiCaprio this accolade, particularly given the physical extremes to which he obviously had to push himself to craft the performance. But for my money there’s a strong case to be made that, on a technical level, his roles in his previous nominations, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Blood Diamond, or The Aviator (or, indeed, The Departed, for which he wasn’t even nominated) were better performances, more deserving of the prize. The Academy moves in mysterious ways.
In the entirely legitimate furore around the Oscars’ lack of diversity, and given the subject matter of this film, one is reminded of Marlon Brando’s decision, in 1973 to turn down his Oscar for The Godfather; having become involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM), Brando asked activist Sacheen Littlefeather to turn down the award on his behalf, in an attempt to raise the issue of the representation of native Americans in film. Could DiCaprio do something similar? Progress has been made since 1973, but indigenuous Americans still face myriad struggles. Perhaps such gestures are meaningless, even patronising, but it would at least be in keeping with the mission of The Revenant to jar, disrupt, and aggress. Given the “Oscars So White” row, and America’s ongoing failure to meaningfully address the racist foundations of its modern state, no-one could deny that such disruption remains necessary.