The Revenant: A Film Review Essay (sort of)

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by Matt Sheedy

Among the numerous commentaries that have been written about The Revenant, a Golden Globe winning film that many are predicting will clean up at the Oscars, Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech for best actor has been noted for his praise of First Nations, which he concluded as follows:

I want to share this award with all the First Nations people represented in this film and all the indigenous communities around the world. It is time that we recognized your history and that we protect your indigenous lands from corporate interests and people that are out there to exploit them. It is time that we heard your voice and protected this planet for future generations.

It was the attention that followed Dicaprio’s speech that first piqued my interest in The Revenant, particularly how it reflects an instance of the mainstreaming of Indigenous issues by non-Natives, which I will argue is also true of the film despite being told through the eyes of white frontiersman Huge Glass.

In what follows, I will begin my review by:

1) Teasing out some loose threads of connectivity between Dicaprio’s speech and recent affective-political shifts surrounding Indigeniety in North America before turning to

2) A narrative analysis of The Revenant with an eye to how it reflects these reconfigurations.

My reason for this prefatory approach is twofold: first, because any narrative production and reception is always much broader than its particular contents, it will necessarily circulate within complex economies of images, interests, and affects that exceed the author(s) intended message. Second, and relatedly, locating gaps between Native and non-Native discourses about Indigeniety is instructive for theorizing some of the ways that dominant groups take up, appropriate, and reconfigure common tropes or ideas—positively or negatively, as the case may be—as well for assessing how insiders’ narratives make their way into the mainstream.

1. While activism coming out of Indigenous communities has been in the media since at least the dawn of the American Indian Movement (circa. 1968), Native-centered issues such as sovereignty, treatise rights, resource extraction, and racism have rarely gained much traction in the mainstream, with an emphasis instead on “flash-point” events pitting Indigenous communities against state forces in armed conflict, such as the Wounded Knee standoff in 1973 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, or the Oka (Kanehsatà:ke) Crisis in Québec (1990). [1] Relatedly, philosophy and pop culture have long reproduced tropes that imagine Indigeneity as bound up with nature, such as the “noble savage” or the wise shaman who is able to see things that the “civilized” European cannot.

In the wake of the Idle No More (INM) movement (circa. December 2012), which saw unprecedented mobilizations all over Canada in the form of rallies, teach-ins, hunger strikes, and, most commonly, drum circles and round-dances as its’ central performative feature, a very different public narrative on “Nativeness” emerged, spurring similar actions across the US, such as the December 2013 flash mob at the Mall of America. Long-standing campaigns to boycott racist team mascots, such as the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians also received mainstream attention during this time (e.g., on John Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight), while the state of California passed a law banning the use of the redskins name in October 2015. More recently, the highly publicized Oregon militia standoff saw mainstream coverage of the wildlife refuge being occupied as stolen Paiute land.

While commentaries about these events were by no means singular, nor devoid of familiar stereotypes and racist backlash, such examples highlight how recent popular representations of Indigeneity appear to have shifted to reflect at least some of the actual concerns and narratives coming out of Native communities. To the extent that this thesis holds, paying attention to how such ideas are reconfigured may tell us something about the role of ideology and affect in conditioning how we talk about different social groups within the public sphere—which leads me back to Dicaprio’s speech.

During the height of Idle No More, one of the most pervasive Native-centered discourses focused on the role of women within Indigenous communities as “protectors of the land,” which attempted to create a different affective orientation toward the position of Indigenous people in the Americas—from one of victims in need of aid to leaders on the frontlines in defense of the environment. As one spokesperson in the INM movement, Pamela Palmater, repeatedly stated:

 

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First Nations, with our constitutionally protected aboriginal treaty rights, are Canadians’ last best hope to protect the lands, waters, plants, and animals from complete destruction—which doesn’t just benefit our children, but the children of all Canadians (The Winter We Danced: 40).

 

 

The threads of connectivity between Hollywood, Idle No More, and the notion of Indigenous people as “protectors of the land” (and not merely as models of some idealized biocentric worldview) are loose at best, which is why the quest for origins in any social narrative is such a fraught endeavor. When theorized as an “affective economy,” however, particularly what Sara Ahmed calls “conversion points,” where affect is redirected rather then merely reproduced, one can see how Native-centered ideas appear to be trickling into the mainstream, uneven and ever-shifting.

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Situating Dicaprio’s speech within this framework, we might speculate that his own interest in environmental activism, which includes a 2014 visit to the Alberta tar sands and near-by Fort Chipewyan Reserve for research on an upcoming environmental documentary, has been partly informed by the groundswell in Indigenous activism since Idle No More. Although the closing words in his speech retain a ring of paternalism (i.e., “it’s time that we … protect your indigenous lands …”), the Native-centered narrative of protecting the land for future generations is nonetheless present, which is a sentiment that The Revenant also seems to pick up on, however indirectly.

2. Departing from the range of narrative analyses that I have read to date on The Revenant, I would like to suggest an alternative reading that speaks to the aforementioned affective “conversion points” that have been generated in the wake of Idle No More, as told through the eyes of white, liberal America [2]. Specifically, I want to argue that the film is best understood as a dystopian vision of some of America’s founding myths—e.g., the taming of nature, bringing civilization through war, trade, and settlement, and the ideal of rugged individualism triumphing over a collectivist “Indian” culture—presented through a tale of survival and revenge that ultimately aims to reconfigure such myths by decentering notions of Euro-settler nobility and Indigenous “savagery.”

First things first, following an insightful commentary by Ojibwe writer Jesse Wente, there is no escaping the fact that The Revenant reflects the “colonial gaze,” which Wente sees as a staple of the Hollywood western, where Indigenous characters are often maligned or, in this case, placed squarely in the background. As he writes:

The Revenant takes great strides to get period details correct around clothing, language, housing and combat, but does little to elevate the indigenous characters beyond narrative and storytelling devices.

While it is true that Indigenous characters are peripheral in the film, Wente’s analysis misses what I take to be its dystopian intent by focusing only on what it should have done and not what it does within the logic of a Euro-centric framework. If we consider how racism and white privilege function on a socio-structural level, we must admit (however regrettable) that the idea of an Indigenous actor playing a leading role in a Hollywood blockbuster is still impossible to imagine in 2015-2016. For this reason, the closing lines of Wente’s article should be read as more aspirational than theoretical:

A film about Elk Dog would be a major step in the right direction. A film about Hugh Glass, no matter how immaculately produced, is unable to escape the constraints of the genre it honours.

To be clear, I agree with this sentiment, and think that a major film about an Indigenous figure (and played by Indigenous actors!) is long overdue. However, if we shift our emphasis from what the film lacks, ideally speaking, to what it does within the logic of these socio-structural conditions, then perhaps a better question is not so much one of The Revenant reproducing the colonial gaze (which it does), but of asking how it incorporates ideas about Indigeniety that are increasingly informed by Native-centered discourses while told through the eyes of a white protagonist?

Consider the film’s narrative arch: It begins with an ethereal dream sequence with Glass speaking to his (unnamed) Pawnee wife with whom he shares a child (Hawk). She is killed before his eyes by American soldiers, which haunts him throughout the film, along with the death of his son, who is murdered by John Fitzgerald (also in front of his eyes), a fur trapper in his troop of 10 surviving men who are forced deep into the Montana wilderness (the northern Louisiana purchase in 1823, and unceded Indigenous land) after their contingent of forty-plus men is decimated by a band of Arikara lead by Elk Dog, who is in search of his kidnapped daughter, Powaqa. Elk Dog’s saga, along with that of Hikuc, another Pawnee man whom Glass encounters in search of revenge/justice for the murder of his family by rival Sioux, parallel Glass’s own journey, and function (on my reading) as an allegory for the film’s underlying theme—the survival of Indigenous people against all odds in search of a deferred and partial justice.

Within this framework, Glass embodies a peculiar, liminal status between two worlds—he is white and engaged in a settler-colonial practice (fur trapping on unceded Indigenous land), yet he also speaks Pawnee, and has an Indigenous son and (late) wife to whom he is/was firmly committed. Interestingly, Glass does not appear to emulate “Nativeness” in any discernable way—he has not “gone Native”—which is a departure from the familiar trope of a non-Native turning into an Indigenous person and absorbing “all things seemingly positive about Native culture,” what Michael Sheyahshe calls the “Mohican Syndrome.”

With the murder of his son at the hands of Fitzgerald, who embodies a pragmatic vision of survival and a dream of buying land in Texas, Glass’s liminal status is thrown into disarray. Trapping for the sake of his son no longer matters, only surviving against all odds (being mauled by a bear, escaping from Elk Dog’s band in frigid rapids, and riding off a cliff on horseback) in order to find some kind of justice for Hawk. Here I would suggest that Hawk’s fate, along with that of Glass’s unnamed wife, are metaphors for crimes against all Indigenous people, while his seemingly super-human ability to survive is meant as an allegory for Indigenous struggles and perseverance circa. 1492.

In addition to the parallel (and peripheral) story of Elk Dog, there is also the character of Hikuc, a Pawnee man who saves Glass’s life by giving him bison meat, tending to his wounds, and protecting him from a harsh winter storm. Hikuc is also on his own seeking revenge/justice for the murder of his family at the hands of a group of Sioux, which he approaches with a stoic attitude stating, “revenge is in Creator’s hands.” The morning after Hikuc saves Glass’s life he is found hanged from a tree, with a sign around his neck reading: On est tous des sauvages (“we are all savages”). While at least one commentary has interpreted this scene to reflect director Alejandro Iñárritu’s view of human beings in general as “primitive, quasi-bestial creatures” that can only be saved by a revenant (one who returns from the dead, literally or metaphorically), when placed within the film’s larger narrative arch, such a reading appears to miss the mark.

Although Indigenous characters—Pawnee, Arikara, and Sioux—do engage in violence in the film, their actions are motivated by discernible (and justifiable) reasons, such as the kidnapping and eventual rape of Elk Dog’s daughter.

While white settler violence is also given multiple dimensions (e.g., the characters Jim Bridger and Captain Andrew Henry are clearly compassionate and self-sacrificing figures), the direction of the colonial gaze is ultimately subverted. Most of the men end up dying over pelts and Fitzgerald’s dream of buying property is thwarted by Glass’s eventual revenge. Glass is also haunted by flashbacks of buffalo skulls throughout the film, stacked high in pyramid formation, which was a deliberate strategy to starve out Indigenous populations. In one dream sequence Glass meets his son Hawk in the burnt ruins of a church, a hollowed out symbol of Christian civilization.

In the final scene, as Glass is about to deliver the final blow to Fitzgerald to complete his revenge, he sees a small group of Arikara 50 feet down river and decides to float Fitzgerald down to them, echoing Hikuc’s line, “revenge is in God’s hands,” replacing the word “Creator” with “God.” Elk Dog swiftly cuts Fitzgerald’s throat and then proceeds on horseback past a wounded, kneeling Glass, neither helping nor harming him, while Powaqa (who Glass saved earlier in the film while being raped by a French trapper) meets his eyes, neither in gratitude nor disdain. As they ride out of frame, the viewer is left with a sense of uncertainty as to their fate, as well as to the fate of Glass, who has a final vision of his wife before to the screen fades to black.

All in all, The Revenant works as a dystopian narrative precisely because it neither demonizes white settlers nor idealizes Indigenous culture, attempting instead to present an allegory for the still-fraught relations between (white) settler and Indigenous cultures in the Americas. Unable to side with the ways of colonial settlers, while still embodying them, Glass has a stake in protecting Indigenous people, though he can never quite grasp what it is like nor atone for what has been done, despite his blood ties to Hawk and his late wife. In the end, all that remains is a trail of carnage and a quiet acknowledgement that revenge/justice is only partial and remains deferred.

Of course my reading here is only one narrative analysis in a sea of interpretations that may be rejected, supplemented, or perhaps find some resonance, only to be reconfigured in a different way. However much these affective “conversation points” remain loose and speculative, another Native-centered slogan popularized during Idle No More–“We Are All Treaty People”–is also worth considering, as both Dicaprio’s speech and The Revenant attempt to re-imagine Native and non-Native relationships on a different basis, while framing it in their own image, both reproducing and subverting the colonial gaze.

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[1] Indeed, Wounded Knee was one of the issues raised by Apache actor Sacheen Littlefeather back in 1973, when she spoke on behalf of Marlon Brando, rejecting his award for best actor and speaking instead on the “treatment of American Indians today in the film industry.”

[2] It should be noted that the film’s director Alejandro Iñárritu, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is Mexican.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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