The Revenant is Renewal
[The text contains plot information that could be termed Spoilers]
“The Revenant” by Alejandro González Iñárritu (2015), is the first significant retelling by a Hollywood studio of a myth upon which so much time has been spent by the Western imagination. This retelling has the potential to contribute to a new myth for the posthumanist age in which we now live. Let me explain what I mean by this.
“The Revenant” is not simply a retelling or inversion of the myth of Manifest Destiny, “a sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example … generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven” (Merk 3). In “The Revenant” this new earth is a frightening, vast, inhospitable place, be it one that is stunningly beautiful, if not deadly dangerous for all who inhabit it no matter what their nationality or society. “The Revenant” is not a ‘noble savage’ parable (“Little Big Man” or “The Mission”), of how the Indigenous peoples of the so-called ‘New World’ were free and fair (“Dances with Wolves”) or held the forces of nature in balance through their mysterious religion (“A Man Called Horse”) or the insights it provided (“Black Robe”), or a combination of each. Nor is “The Revenant” an account of reconciliation, where the crimes of the past are eased by the recompense, apology and subsequent bonding of characters that represent both sides of history (“Dead Man”) in a new ‘one love’ myth.
Rather “The Revenant” is an account of the forces at work that are outside the control of all the human characters represented in the story. The vast wilderness is no more accommodating to its Indigenous inhabitants than to the invaders. The Indigenous characters react to their own pointless sense of loss, the demands of the climate, or the basic necessities of survival. The colonial characters struggle at the best of times, in filth and deprivation, to understand their surroundings and to survive them, always dreaming of a profit that never seems to arrive. Out of this mass of raw reality emerge a series of actions that drive a story that the Director Iñárritu describes as about human experiences and survival. From the perspective of characters and the audience, survival is clearly a priority, but the film is distinctly dominated by posthumanist values.
“Posthumanism differs from classical humanism by relegating humanity back to one of many natural species, thereby rejecting any claims founded on anthropocentric dominance. According to this claim, humans have no inherent rights to destroy nature or set themselves above it in ethical considerations a priori. Human knowledge is also reduced to a less controlling position, previously seen as the defining aspect of the world. The limitations and fallibility of human intelligence are confessed, even though it does not imply abandoning the rational tradition of humanism.” (Wikipedia)
There are many examples of the human taking second place to the necessities of the present time and place in “The Revenant”. There is the moment when Glass, the lead character (the ‘revenant’) finally explains the accusation levelled at him several times earlier in the story, that he killed a soldier. “I killed a man who tried to kill my son” he answers, thus moving the focus from the human social and legal to the moment (repeated through the film) that a father protects his son. This paternal instinct offers a universal understanding, which is mirrored in perhaps the most brutal moments of a very brutal film, when the bear that sets the events of the “The Revenant” in motion attacks Glass.
The bear, a hulking 200 kilos of pure maternal force, believes she is protecting her cubs. Glass kills the bear, barely, and then wears the pelt for most of the rest of the film. Glass wears that pelt as he desperately tries to survive long enough to avenge the murder of his son. The space he achieves this in renders him an insignificant speck in the scale of things. But all he has is that impulse. Glass only removes the bear pelt for his final act of revenge. Even that final act he surrenders to the space around him, when he hands his victim over to a passing group of Indigenous inhabitants of the waste, thus recognising the moment as one of him being just another object within that space, merely performing as he must.
Glass becomes neither an Indigenous pretender (although he has the credentials to assume the role with the language, a dead Indigenous family and vast knowledge of the space), nor is he a stereotypical Colonial Frontiersman. Instead he is a small point in a enormous and complex structure, where cause and effect are merely the easiest ways to understand such vastness from a single perspective. In this way “The Revenant” operates on a planetary scale, presenting the drama of human history against a backdrop that is largely indifferent to it. It reminds me of those large scale non-narrative epics of the 80s and 90s, “Powaqqatsi”, “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Baraka”. In each of these four films, humanity labours and struggles upon the skin of the earth, unaware of what it means to inhabit this planet, if it means anything at all. It is from this point that a renewed myth can be built regarding humanity and the biosphere.Welcome to the posthuman.
Merk, Frederick (1963). Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978–0–674–54805–3.