The technical achievements of “The Revenant,” the new film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, expose the film’s lack of spiritual imagination.
Humor is a crucial form of imagination, and the lack of it is a sign—but not proof—of a failure of imagination. There’s a kind of spiritual illumination, a holy state, that can get away without humor, that might even preclude it—and many artists who lack humor and imagination strive to conjure or to imitate that state, not because they’re actually endowed with a spiritual vision but to compensate for that lack. That’s how the spiritualism of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” the rugged adventure through frozen country of the grieving, angry, wounded guide and trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), plays. Its spirituality and attendant solemnity give the story and the movie an air of importance that would both justify and conceal its emptiness, that would convert its defects into virtues.
The framework of “The Revenant” is a taut, classic double chase. Glass, who was left for dead after being attacked by a bear, is chasing Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the man who killed Glass’s son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). In turn, a group of Native Americans are seeking a woman, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), who was kidnapped, and because Glass, travelling alone, is likely to be the nearest white person in their search, they are, in effect, chasing him (although he had nothing to do with her disappearance).
Glass was working with a company of trappers—who included Fitzgerald—when disaster, in the form of a raid by Native Americans, struck. A handful of surviving trappers depend on Glass to see them through to safety. When he’s wounded and nearing death, two devoted young members of the company stay beside him. But Fitzgerald, seeing that his survival—and his livelihood—is at risk, wants to kill Glass. Hawk dies defending his father, and Fitzgerald casts the moribund guide into a pit, expecting him to die there.
The pursuit is fraught with plot details that play an outsize role in the outcome of events. Glass was married to a Native American woman who was killed in a raid by soldiers (of indeterminate nationality). When he joins the company of trappers, as their guide, he brings their son, Hawk, with him and protects him against the trappers’ racist threats and provocations. Fitzgerald, for his part, signed on for a job, not for military service, and, in the predatory terms of his contract, he’s paid not for his time of service but for the pelts that he delivers, thus putting his pay into conflict with the effort to transport the wounded Glass.
Once on his own, Glass crosses paths with Native Americans—one man tosses him a buffalo liver, teaches him to spurn the way of revenge (saying that revenge belongs not to man but to God), and takes him along on horseback. When Glass risks dying from his festering wounds, this Native American also heals him with traditional methods, from which Glass arises a new man. Soon thereafter, Glass finds his preserver hanged by a band of French trappers—and finds Powaqa their captive and sex slave, and rescues her. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that, when Glass catches up to Fitzgerald, he takes to heart his savior’s lesson on revenge and receives his earthly reward for his defense of Powaqa.
In short, Iñárritu’s sympathy for the indigenous people of the region and their struggle to survive American and French occupation veers toward an exaltation of them as magical exceptions, whose traditions endow them with special powers and transform them into the living embodiments of God’s will. With the best of intentions and with his eye on historic wrongs, Iñárritu lifts Native Americans into a realm apart, as people unlike others, whose very otherness is an unfortunate caricature. The director does this not from a lack of sympathy but a failure of imagination.
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