The Revenant & The Beauty of Violence
Everyone seems to agree that Alejandro Inarritu’s most recent film is beautiful. The expansive shots allow the Western mountains to rise and recede. Scenes unfold in the midst of open forests yet the whole depth of field is in precise focus. The sky is full, so that even when it is no more than the uniform grey of impending snow it rises to carry the viewer outside of the cinema to the actual sky overhead—to the inescapable cold of deep winter.
What is less agreed upon is the value of this beautiful film as art, or what the movie might mean. Loosely (quite loosely) based on events in the life of the historic fur trapper and mountain man Hugh Glass, the movie is a prime target for charges of historical inaccuracy. The most compelling charge of all, by Stacy Nation-Knapper, is that the story perpetrates the well-worn white savior plot: a white man acts as an avenging power for indigenous people who are noble, but tragically doomed. I think this criticism mis-appraises the film. Like the music of the John Luther Adams soundtrack, the art of the film is after something other than historical narrative. Calling it out for getting the facts wrong is something akin to taking Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to task for factual flubs.
So what is the film after? In the opening shot, sound arrives before image. We hear the murmur of a stream and the distant bugling of an elk. Slowly a forest materializes into view as the vantage point rises from near the surface of flowing water. Flooded moss clad trees punctuate a misty understory. (Anyone who is familiar with the historical Glass can immediately recognize the departure from the facts: Glass’s expedition took place on the Missouri in what is now the Standing Rock Sioux reservation during late summer--not exactly flood season or a mossy ecosystem). Then, sliding in from the left, comes the blued muzzle of a rifle, overlarge and very close. Suddenly the viewers are placed in the midst of the scene, among the hunters and much nearer to them than expected.
This nearness forms the core of Inarritu’s film. Again and again we are shoved up against materiality. Within moments of seeing that first menacing rifle, the silence of the hunt is broken by the first shot. A bull elk is killed (the only moment when special effects come up short, the elk looks like a bonus from a barroom Big Game Hunter machine). Before the elk falls, we cut to the camp of the trappers. The camp is dirty, muddy. The men are dirty and clad in the same skins which they are packing into bales. The activity of trapping is shown as contiguous with mining or clearcutting. These men are roughnecks. Violence is inherent in their work. Suddenly, an arrow rises through the throat of a man in the center of the view. The ensuing battle with the Arikara (“Rees”) highlights the terrible fragility of human bodies. Just like the animals they have been harvesting, men are swiftly reduced to blood and flesh, painfully torn and dying. Men of both parties are killed. Inarritu's long tracking shots swoop in close to the violence, focusing on hands, eyes, blood. Death is sometimes swift: one man’s head is smashed in violently by the butt of a rifle. Others are wounded, fall, and rise in a panic to reach the safety of the boat or rush toward the enemy trappers. Throughout the battle, the trappers struggle to protect the bales of furs that they have spent the past six months working to gather--and thus encumbered are easy targets. When the boat finally pulls downriver, the dark smoke from the pillaged camp rises into a pale sky.
This intimacy with actual violence is surely alien to most viewers of the film. Yet the film again and again insists that such violence is not alien to our world. As material bodies, part of our condition is being subject to the same violence as the whole material world. Many reviewers have used the word “brutal” to describe the film’s violence. The word has sonic appeal; hard brevity and low vowels. But it contains a paradox. Brutality implies a dichotomy of brute and human. When the human acts as a brute, an animal, the result is brutality. Brutality is lawless and uncontrollable violence; it is the human acting as nature is presumed to. The Revenant does not seem to uphold this dichotomy. The most “brutal” scene in the movie (there are many that might qualify) is when Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear. Glass is helpless before the enormous strength and incredible speed of the animal. But to say that this is brutal is misleading; the bear is defending her offspring (as is the Arikara war party, and as does Glass himself). Human is nature, or at least, is nestled within nature. This natural violence does not quite enter the realm of the moral. It is not wrong—it is simply a contest which determines survival. A bear is not bad for it’s violence.
Being shoved near to the violence itself is akin to Walter Benjamin’s insistence in his “Critique of Violence” that to understand violence we must remove it from the scheme of ends and means, and the nature of violence as such. It is not, however, any theoretical nature of violence so much as its concrete existence that The Revenant reveals.
Rather than asking us to judge, theorize, or justify violence Inarritu tries to make the violence of the material world present to viewers. As a part of that material world that is often taken for granted the body is perhaps the central character. The creaturely body—raced, gendered, speciated—is what struggles for the duration of the movie. Bodies are raped, dismembered, opened. They are commodified as pelts. They are aligned within ecological, social, and political matrices as friend or enemy or food. Again and again Glass encounters other bodies. He is pinned down by the body of the bear that mauls him, and then wears its skin and claws. He devours raw fish and bloody bison flesh. He literally crawls inside of the body of a horse (it’s hard not to see this as an homage to The Empire Strikes Back).
We are often made squeamish by anything that reminds us of the materiality of our bodies, as Kristeva insists with her concept of “the Abject.” We dislike the fact that the boundaries of our bodies are easily crossed. We don’t like to be reminded that when the body fails, life fails. And so that scene of the mauling, when Glass is reduced to a ragged body, is horrific. Blood oozes from wounds. We glimpse fat and muscle that should be inside and invisible. We see the external world, duff and moss, entering the unraveling flesh. The bear’s breath and drool and blood smear Glass’s body and the camera.
This breaking of the fourth wall serves a key purpose in the complex problem presented by a medium so seemingly immaterial as a film that highlights materiality. Aren’t movies famous for escapism? Isn’t this more fantasy than reality? In answer to such questions, the cues indicate the materiality of the artiface. By doing so, they insist that the representation is not a second order reality. Rather, it is contiguous with reality. The same cold wind that we witness as haunting Glass actually chilled mountain men. It actually chilled Leonardo DiCaprio. It actually blows against the walls of the theatre. We are drawn into the film as a film and thus into the material world in the same way that “abstract” art is actually the most concrete since it points to it’s own material constituents as paint and canvas, color and form. It carries its viewers through the intensified experience of art, back into the material world with renewed awareness of fragility and violence.
But does this make The Revenant good or at least successful art? Even if it pushes viewers near to violence, is that enough? Alone, I don’t think so. The abyssal reality of violence does not contain ground for life--for resisting violence. And this is a story of survival and revenge. Even leaving aside revenge (the final lines of the movie insist that revenge is “In the hands of the creator,” perhaps unconvincing after intimate view of a fatal knife and tomahawk duel), survival would seem to need some joy.
Joy in The Revenant is portrayed in what Melville calls the “attainable felicity” of “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.” And it is mostly lost. In the breakdown and chaos of a “clash of civilizations” in the American West of the 1830s, such embodied joys are always in a precarious situation. Attacks may come from all sides, from established enemies and nature to presumed allies and partners. Hallucinations, dreams, and flashbacks are the best hope Glass seems to ever have of joy and a reason to resist nihilism (we can see how the portrayal of the past is always more about the present than about history). But there is one exception to this bleak outlook that ties violence and bodies so completely. It is an incongruous scene that might be a hint of what Giorgio Agamben calls a “Coming Community,” based not on “bare life” or “human rights” but on what he calls “whatever-being.” Whatever-being is too muddled for me, but the scene of joy in the center of film is not: the mauled Glass has escaped the Arikara war party by sliding into a river, tumbling over rapids and falls, and finally dragging himself on shore. Here, he meets a Pawnee man, upon whose mercy he throws himself. The men share a fire and steal raw bison from wolves. The Pawnee man offers help. As the sky lowers, the two sit beneath a bush. When snowflakes begin to drift down, the Pawnee man grins, opens his mouth wide and catches them on his tongue. A dazed Glass slowly follows suit, and smiles. These two men form a friendship based on shared bodily pleasure and a recognition of material continuity.
The boundaries of our bodies are permeable, and the borders between self and world are less permanent than we are used to thinking. As with much knowledge, this is easy to know and difficult to experience. And when it is experienced it can be a fearsome truth. But the stark beauty captured in The Revenant is also real and by witnessing it we carry some new ability to notice back out into the world. We are brought near to the violence that others suffer and we often inflict unknowingly. We are shown our own bodies’ fragility. In a world where the consequences of actions are often unknowable, we need such reminders that means regularly overwhelm ends. And so we need to focus on means--on the present embodied reality. This can mean questioning the violence of resource extraction so often presumed justified by some noble ends (be it beaver hats or SUVs). It can mean questioning the narratives of violence at the foundation of our settler culture--and so the discussions of the justice of this film. But noticing bodies also means we can take joy in a snowflake on the tongue, even in the face of a blizzard.