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When Revenge Goes Wrong

Instead of a captivating revenge film, The Revenant quickly becomes an overwrought mess.

The Revenant is set in a snowy wilderness so beautifully shot that it takes a while before you can focus on anything else. It makes you realize how seldom contemporary American filmmakers go outside, way outside, into the mysteriously splendid world we live in. Human beings are the ugly two-legged things that don’t belong in such a setting, as The Revenant shows us over and over. With humans comes stupid chaos, and constant noise.

The noise is one of the most interesting things about the film. In a remarkable soundtrack choice, director Alejandro González Iñárritu opted to make even the quietest human endeavor loud and intrusive. Early in the film, the protagonist — mountain man Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) — goes hunting and makes such a ruckus lumbering through the woods that you’d expect all wildlife to flee the area. Nevertheless, he blunders upon a mother bear and her cubs and gets mauled nearly to death.

All I could think of in this moment was “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” — Mark Twain’s brilliant takedown of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, which feature various characters, supposedly well-versed in “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” tripping and clattering through the trees in clumsy pursuit of each other:

Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go out and borrow one.

It was unfortunate that I thought of Twain’s essay so early in the film because from then on I couldn’t shake off a humorous point of view — a task made more difficult by the obvious comparison to be made between The Revenant and Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, the other savage, snowbound, revisionist Western to open within the last month. Hateful Eight has a practical way of handling the sheer relentless extremity of the material it shares with The Revenant — humor, which Tarantino wisely supplies instead of letting the audience do it themselves.

Hugh Glass was a legendary real-life mountain man whose incredible survival story forms the basis for this film, but in Inarritu’s version of him, he’s a “Cooper person” through and through, always finding a dry twig to step on. Hired as a guide to a fur-trapping enterprise, supposed to navigate a safe path in and out of the remote mountainous territory, he starts the film by failing to anticipate an attack by Arikawa Indians (“Ree” for short) who have the trappers so thoroughly surrounded, they’re literally dropping from the trees over the camp.

It’s a terrific, gory battle scene in which half the white men are slaughtered, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera wheeling around catching Ree warriors racing after trappers and arrows skewering men’s throats. After that it’s hard not to sympathize with trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who demands to know why anyone should listen to Glass anymore.

Fitzgerald might sound like the Voice of Reason if it weren’t for his many bad qualities that mark him as the villain of the piece — he’s a racist redneck from Texas, and a perpetual sorehead who complains about everything.

Notably, Fitzgerald also represents the man obsessed with the bottom line, less concerned with loss of human life than the loss of the pelts they have to leave behind. He’s a poor Irish-descended sodbuster who’s fixated on recovering his money somehow so he can get a farm of his own after this deadly boondoggle. Tom Hardy does a wonderful job playing Fitzgerald as a ruthless, crazy-eyed rationalizer who seems to embody the ravening greed underlying the Manifest Destiny enterprise.

Fitzgerald is scorned by the Captain (Domhnall Gleeson), a pale British upper-cruster who heads the expedition and takes principled stances about leaving the pelts behind and trying to saving Glass. But then, presumably, the Captain can afford his principles.

I was hoping this line of narrative would be pursued in a way that eventually exposed the Captain’s complicity in the avaricious savagery that permeates human behavior on the frontier, as well as the cruel necessities of survival.

My favorite version of the Hugh Glass legend involves issues of property that run through it, right alongside revenge. In that version, Glass’s attempted reprisal is thwarted because Fitzgerald has run off and joined the army by the time Glass catches up with him. Army reps refuse to give up Fitzgerald — whom they figure is now army property — so Glass demands the return of his gun instead. It seems that, as far as motivations go, reclaiming his stolen weapon was a close second to killing Fitzgerald.

Indeed, in this version, the worst betrayal by John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger was not leaving Glass behind but leaving him behind without his property and means of survival — a gun, a knife, a tomahawk, and fire-making flint and steel — which they took when they left him, figuring he was as good as dead.

But nothing much is made of the importance of property in The Revenant, which focuses much more on Glass’s many misadventures. After Glass bumbles into the woods and gets attacked by a bear, every time alertness is worth four dollars a minute, he’s asleep or having a mystical vision or distracted somehow.

He tries to steal a horse from a camp of drunken Frenchmen and makes such a mess of attempting to save a captured Ree woman at the same time, they all hear him as he’s stage-whispering to her, “Come here, come here!” (She wisely runs the other way.) A lucky Ree attack saves Glass this time. On another occasion, he awakens out of a sound slumber to find Rees sneaking up on him, and gets his horse killed by jumping him off a high cliff to escape — one of five or six times Glass cheats certain death.

When Glass says, “I ain’t afraid to die, I done it already,” you think, “Yeah, more times than Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow!”

The “real” story of Hugh Glass — which is in considerable dispute, like many legends of the Old West — is already incredible. First the bear attack, then getting left for dead by his fellow trappers Fitzgerald and Bridger, and somehow surviving and crawling 250 miles to Fort Kiowa seeking revenge. But Iñárritu can’t leave the merely incredible alone — he has to make it just plain impossible and absurd.

When Iñárritu’s protagonist, flesh torn to ribbons, and starving and freezing and beset by Rees, winds up floating down an icy river that turns into raging rapids, my Twain humor template was replaced by something even more distracting: The Far Side’s “Crisis Clinic” cartoon, which features a luckless building consumed by fire that’s nearing the edge of a waterfall.

There is so much intervening chaos, peril, and added complications in Iñárritu’s version of the Glass survival tale that it’s hard to focus on the motivation of revenge that’s driving him onward.

Glass is provided with a backstory including a Pawnee wife, shown in flashbacks being killed in a US army raid on a Pawnee village, and a half-Pawnee son who gets killed by the evil Fitzgerald. Wife and son keep showing up in woo-woo mystical visions that are sadly typical of representations of Native Americans, urging Glass to “keep breathing.”

Then there’s the Ree band led by a chief on a mission to find his kidnapped daughter, whose path keeps crossing Glass’s. Plus there are some French trappers wandering through the narrative — seemingly for no other reason than to suggest the nineteenth-century French are worse scum than any of the other scum ruining the scenery.

At one point, Glass even writes “Fitzgerald killed my son” in the snow — a handy, belated reminder that revenge is what’s keeping Glass going against all odds.

The marketers sold The Revenant as an epic, driving revenge tale featuring Glass on horseback riding furiously as if hot on the heels of his quarry, Fitzgerald. But we spend so long watching Glass deal with frontier-style slings and arrows of outrageous fortune unrelated to the initial trauma and betrayal that it’s hard to keep Fitzgerald in mind.

Also, Fitzgerald has no idea, for nine-tenths of the film, that Glass is alive and coming for him. This creates a slack, “meanwhile, back at the fort” quality to the narrative that led me to think bitterly, “Never send an art film director to do a genre film director’s job.”

The 1975 film version of the Hugh Glass story, Man in the Wilderness, also devotes a lot of time to the arduous travails of Glass (played by Richard Harris). But that creative team was canny enough to give him a nemesis who knows Glass is alive and on his trail — a ferocious, Bible-quoting, Manifest Destiny–favoring nightmare capitalist who’s running the expedition (played by John Huston in one of his great corrupt patriarch roles). Having the idea of a vengeful Glass growing in his enemy’s imagination does wonders for knitting the narrative together instead of letting it sprawl all over, getting more diffuse by the hour.

But then, probably a lot of people are happy to have the revenge narrative torpedoed for most of the film’s running time. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post declares such narratives to be “tired and trite,” which just shows you the crazy times we’re living in, that people write absurdly dishonest things like that.

Film genres are popular as long as they compensate people for what real life doesn’t usually provide — justice, romance, adventure, and, absolutely, revenge. No working-class person ever arrived at adulthood without having been screwed over a hundred different ways large and small, and this makes the revenge narrative an absolute staple of many cultures, not just our own.

The Revenant promised to be a wow of a revenge film, but in trying so hard to be complex and meaningful in his patented overeager way, Iñárritu dilutes its impact. Even the last tenth of the film, when the revenge plot kicks back into gear, is horribly botched.

In more of Cooper’s “delicate art of the forest,” Fitzgerald is run down by Glass on horseback, shot but only wounded, and flees into a stand of trees. All Fitzgerald has to do at that point is get behind a tree, turn, and shoot Glass, who’s out in the open pursuing him — a clear target in the snowy expanse. But Fitzgerald just keeps running through the trees, back out into plain sight, where he’s overtaken by Glass on a riverbank. I’m no mountain man, but even I could see that was a silly thing to do.

It made for a nice overhead shot, though. Indeed, the film is worth watching just for the snowy mountains, towering pine forests, and icy rivers shot in natural light by Lubezki. And as long as you don’t think of anything funny, you’ll probably find a lot to engross you in The Revenant.

But it was too late for me. The ultimate laugh came at the very end, after Glass and Fitzgerald have grappled and hacked at each other until Fitzgerald is a mass of bloody gouges. The struggle is supposed to be as nasty as possible, full of viscera and spittle, so we can feel ponderous sorrow and say, “Oh the humanity!” But just then, Glass stops and says, “Revenge belongs to God,” repeating a line by a displaced Pawnee who saved him earlier and was slaughtered by the scum-French for his trouble.

The Revenant is one of many films, including Man in the Wilderness, to sport this type of ending, where at the very last moment the avenger decides not to kill the man he’s been chasing for the entire film. It was common in American revenge films of the pacifist 1960s and ’70s, especially. The protagonist generally makes this merciful decision after he’s thoroughly terrorized his victim and made his life hell. Then he can say, “You’re not worth it,” or words to that effect, and ride away satisfied, looking morally superior.

But Iñárritu breaks new ground in having the hero hand revenge over to God and then proceed to shove his enemy, bleeding copiously from half a dozen deep wounds, into the freezing water so he’ll float directly downstream into the waiting arms of a band of Ree so they can finish him off.

I guess that’s one way to freshen up the revenge genre.