The Revenant: Tragedy and Western Landscapes Reimagined through Journey

BY REECE GUIDArevenant

This past weekend I finally sat down to watch The Revenant. Or, more accurately, it was already playing at my friend’s house when I bombarded him. The film, as most everyone knows at this point, is about the survival journey of a fur trapper in 1783 who was mauled by a bear and then by his friends. A generic convention of nature films or literature is that the natural world illuminates human nature — think Jack London’s Call of the Wild, which was used in the HBO series The Night Of as an allegory of human nature that would help the protagonist survive the “wild” trials and tribulations of jail that spring from “wild” individuals. I would like to return to The Revenant with this example in mind to express how intertextuality enriches the experience of media, complicating interpretations of a “text” by putting it in dialogue with others. What Innaritu, director of Birdman and this film is doing, is playing with intertextuality of genres by juxtaposing ideologically different ones to arrive at a critique of their conventions: the Western, whose myth promotes expansion, optimism, and a journey with the Greek tragedy, a journey of the protagonist who falls from grace due to excessive pride (or hubris).

In doing so, the film achieves a mythopoetic status that subverts both genres, upsetting their conventional expectations while still maintaining that quality of journey. Hugh Glass, played by Dicaprio, has a destination in mind, and that is revenge upon Fitzgerald, who tried to murder Glass in his weak stage of recovery after being mauled by a bear to receive a reward promised by his superior who wanted to spare Glass from a mercy killing after being attacked and asked two men to volunteer to stay with him. The way revenge is arrived at, though, is complicated by the spiritual happenings of the film, such as the embodiment of Native American souls as birds when members of the Pawnee and Ree tribes would die, which serve to disrupt the cause-and-effect linearity of revenge plots through their mythic quality. This other side of the equation in Western films, the Native Americans, most obviously disrupt the expectations of the Western by being figured as much wiser and less savage than their white, colonialist counterparts. In the end where Glass has the opportunity to kill the gored Fitzgerald, he recalls the Indian’s words that revenge is best left to the gods, or nature; after this recollection, he sets Fitzgerald loose to the water, to be flowed away by the metaphorical ebbs and flows of life to which he is now prey to. Let violent instances of human nature be dwarfed by the revenge the natural world might exact on them.

With the historical narrative of French and American exploitation of American Indians at hand, the film complicates traditional interpretations of the Western while enhancing the themes of tragedy, but not subscribing to them perfectly. By reinscribing traditional Westward symbols of optimism, the landscape shots in the film, with a sense of undeniable gloom and a foreboding stillness, that expansionist rhetoric of the Western is stunted. We still witness traditional symbols such as rough masculinity, gunslinging, cowboy/Indian garb, and horse riding in the film, but that Western theme of arriving at some bountiful destination is counteracted by the bleakness of the landscape and its wintry cold that makes the trees stark and spare. The notion of Glass falling, however, is definite, as he mames himself even more after trying to assert his prowess as a fur trapper by trying to kill this bear. The bear, though shot, keeps fighting, and their battle is closed by Glass falling off the side of a large hill only to be crushed by the bear he attempted to kill for its fur. In fact, Glass falls again after stealing a horse from French fur trappers; this time off a mountainside, where his horse, dead from the impact, becomes less of a means for rapid travel and more of a symbol for the casualties of survival when Glass disembowels it in order to sleep/keep warm, showing that Glass has not yet arrived at growth in his triumphant getaway from the trappers who spotted him. This butchering serves as a reinscription of the horse’s symbolism, where in the Westerns it represents freedom in the natural landscape but is cannibalized in Inarritu’s film for a statement on how human nature will persist over actual nature in often grotesque ways.

The parallelism between the characters of the film also collapses the distinctions of the two genres, bringing them closer together. For example, the mother bear, who fought Glass to protect her cubs, is figured as Glass himself when Fitzgerald kills his son, Hawk. Glass’s desire to enact revenge is parentally rather than personally rooted then, and this is an important distinction to make because it complicates the traditionally personal narratives of revenge embodied in the Western. Although Glass realizes that Fitzgerald did try to kill him, his revenge is motivated by Fitzgerald’s murder of his son.

By merging the natural roots of the Western with the tragedy’s roots in human nature, The Revenant arrives at a poignant statement where the Greek tragedy/revenge plot is subverted by the ties to the natural world, which are more often communicated in Westerns as symbols of possibility rather than symbols of human nature.  By maintaining characteristics of the tragic fall but not arriving at the exaction of revenge, Inarritu is able to play with the conventions of both genres in a critique of their mythology: the revenge amounting to murder is not just, and that the Western landscape can be as foreboding in its openness as it can be promising.

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3 Responses to The Revenant: Tragedy and Western Landscapes Reimagined through Journey

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I will start by saying brava Reece! This is such a great read. I will admit it took me a long time to actually get around to watch The Revenant as well, but reading into your perspective on the film makes a lot of sense keeping Jack London’s Call of the Wild in mind. Also the point about the contast between the Native Americans being more calm and civilized than the French and American fur traders was the exact same thing I was thinking watching it as well.

    Shayla

  2. mediaphiles says:

    This movie was AMAZING even though there was very little dialogue compared to other films. Glass did seem full of hubris as he had lived out in nature for years and it seemed as though he thought he knew nature and could predict it. The thing about nature, though, is that nature is chaos and thus unpredictable. I did like the reference to Greek tragedy and journey. I would compare this to The Odyssey, because like Odysseus, Glass has to face trial after dangerous trial in order to return home, and on his return home exacts revenge on those who disturbed his household.

    – turner arrington

  3. marymdalton says:

    That Deadwood seminar is paying dividends. ;-)

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