The Burden in the Blink of an Eye — “The Revenant”

by Gabriel Valdez

“The Revenant” contains two important blinks. The first is cruelly unavoidable, called out in the script as a way of inviting a man to ask for his own death. The second is easily missed, nothing more than a silent and passing recognition. These are two of the most important moments in the film. They are witnessed by no one else, and they are both meaningless outside of the two people sharing them.

“The Revenant” follows Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, the guide for an 1820s fur trading expedition. I won’t ruin any details, but he is left for dead, 200 miles from the nearest safe haven, and has to survive in the harsh winter of Montana and South Dakota with a broken leg and wounds so deep they expose his ribs.

To classify this as a Western or a Survival movie, or much of anything in particular is to view “The Revenant” through a very partial lens. Noir is deeply embedded in its bones. Noir doesn’t need to take place in back alleys and be spouted by suits. It can wear pelts in the cold Rocky Mountains and require almost no dialogue. Noir is just fatalism: the determination that your story is the only one in the universe that matters, juxtaposed against the realization that your story doesn’t matter to the universe in the least. Yet even this stops short of communicating what “The Revenant” is or does as a piece of art.

I’ll describe some of my favorite atmospheric movies as tone poems. Yet for all its natural atmosphere, this isn’t what “The Revenant” is. This is a thick novel, a Hemingway kind of tome. It’s built less for analysis and more for impermeability; less to say something and more to live something. In that way, objective definitions of what “The Revenant” is fail.

Impermeable concepts become malleable – they mean something different to each of us. Each character in “The Revenant” questions the nature of God or the Creator in his own story, particularly through the nature of loss and the cruelty of one’s own survival in the face of that loss. Concepts such as purpose, revenge, forgiveness, and balance become uniquely personal to each. There is no right answer. There is no wrong. There’s no reason to keep going and there’s no reason to stop.

“The Revenant” tells a story in a way that almost acknowledges that the story doesn’t need to be told. Every other character you look at has suffered a story of loss and heartache. The film keeps reminding us that every other human being you encounter, every other animal even, is essentially living out his or her own survival story. What makes Glass’s any different? What makes it matter? Nothing, the film keeps reminding us. There is no point in Glass’s survival. There is no point in his death. There are moments in the film where you’ll want each. There are moments where Glass’s sheer survival is an act of will that brings out the divine in him. There are moments where Glass’s suffering and the clear peace and beauty of release seem the kinder choice by far. This isn’t a film where you root for something to happen, but it is a film where you have to know what happens.

For the intensity of its subject matter, there are very few traditionally dramatic moments in “The Revenant.” Tremendously dramatic things happen – the entire movie’s a tense progression of mounting disasters. There’s just never any particular dramatic moment that’s made to give the audience release – a heartbreaking moment of weeping or an inspired monologue. If DiCaprio wins an Oscar (and he should), I can’t imagine what they’ll select out as his acting clip. He barely has any dialogue. Yet this is the best performance he’s ever given.

I have no clue how to recommend “The Revenant” or to whom one should recommend it. If I listed its trigger warnings, I’d be here all day. It’s a brilliant place to visit; it would be horrific to live in it. No one should see it – it’s abominably and relentlessly cruel. Everyone should see it – it seeks the divine in each of us, no matter how ugly.

No one should suffer it – its world is a profoundly bleak and lonely place. Everyone should joy in it – it is as close to a spiritual revelation as film gets.

No one should see it – when the credits rolled, I felt like my soul had been emptied. Everyone should see it – when the credits rolled, I felt like my soul had been emptied.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women on film. I’ll save us a bit of time, since there’s not much to go into via the regular breakdown. There are two women with speaking roles in “The Revenant,” they never meet, and the events of the film are not kind to either. Then again, they’re not kind to anybody.

This is a good film, but it’s not one that affords many opportunities to women.

The featured image is from Electric-Shadows’ review of the film. On a separate note, I’d also check out Consequence of Sound’s review.

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3 thoughts on “The Burden in the Blink of an Eye — “The Revenant””

  1. All you did was write an array of contradictory statements, all of which are true from the perspectives of the two main characters. Personally I would give less credit to Fitzgerald. His actions were all self serving; whereas, those of Glass we’re not. All of his actions were done for others. He didn’t have to intercede in the rape of Powaqua (although in terms of “Hollywood justice” it saved his life at the end)… something he could not possibly have predicted. He was consistently selfless; Fitzgerald… mercenary.

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    1. That was my experience of watching the movie. Feeling a number of contradictions. Feeling like it was immensely painful, yet very beautiful. Feeling like it was a full moviegoing experience and a draining one. I don’t know how to define this film except by contradictions, and I find that a stunning storytelling accomplishment.

      I’m not altogether sure what credit you think I’m giving Fitzgerald. The only place I allude to him is in saying that all the characters that populate the movie seem to have their own damaging stories and histories that could make for equally engrossing tales. In the group campfire scene, Fitzgerald removes his head covering. His head has a incredibly disfiguring injury. It suggests he lives with a traumatic brain injury, and we know those with even moderate forms of that kind of injury can lead terrifically depressed lives, deal with cognitive and emotional impairment, and even fall into fugues of violence. Certainly, not all people with brain injuries do that, but it is a struggle that many have to face. Fitzgerald’s looks brutal.

      He got that way somehow, and who knows who he was before that. To me, it doesn’t justify any of what he does, but it does give an insight into Fitzgerald – that the way he is is the result of someone else’s violence against him. And isn’t that were Glass goes? His vengeance is personal. It’s vengeance for someone else, but it’s driven out of personal need. He turns into someone else as the result of someone else’s violence against him.

      The desperation the fur traders face in the beginning – they’re not made into men who struggle against each other for survival until they’re fending for their lives. The way they are is the result of someone else’s violence against them. The Arikara tribe hunting the fur traders – they’re not that way either. They’re just searching for a kidnapping victim they’ve been lead to believe the fur traders have. The way they are is the result of someone else’s violence against them.

      Again and again, the film suggests none of these people is inherently violent – whether by force, trickery, or murder, they’ve all been shaped into someone completely different by the actions of a violent possession made against them. This is juxtaposed against a natural landscape that is unchangeable. The violence, it seems to say, is unnatural. It’s a construct.

      Here is nature, harsh but inherently itself, and here is us, one to the next each changing the next into something unnatural. That’s how that movie fills me and empties me. It offers the divine, and then it shows how people bleed it from each other.

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      1. I would add this is why the two blinks are so crucial. The first blink is that of a man trying to take the life of another man. It passes Fitzgerald’s cycle of violence onto Glass.

        The second blink is a woman, passing by, who because of a prior act of humanity, halts that cycle.

        The first blink passes on violence, from one to another. The second blink repays an act of humanity, from one to another. It halts the violence. Everything about this movie is, to me, a set of beautiful and human contradictions.

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