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Jamal Mahjoub: A Closer Look at The Revenant

The depictions of Native Americans in Hollywood are still Hollywood

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Image taken from Flickr user Day Donaldson

By Jamal Mahjoub

Sixteen odd years ago Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu debuted with Amores Perros. Nominated in 2000 for Best Foreign Film it lost out to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Despite this, its success opened the doors for both director and writer, Guillermo Arriaga. Plenty of directors have tried to make the transition to Hollywood and failed. This appeared to be an exception. Iñárritu soon followed up with 21 Grams and Babel, both made with decent casts and both met with critical acclaim. Arriaga wrote and directed several films himself, including The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Burning Plain.

It appeared as though we were witnessing the start of a Mexican wave. Others joined in, including Alfonso Cuarón with Y Tu Mamá También, and Guillermo De Toro’s genre-bending Pan’s Labyrinth. It seemed like an extraordinary moment. Could it be possible that the monolithic American film industry was being transformed from within? Were these talented directors and writers smart enough to keep producers and audiences happy while at the same time broadening the aperture of American movie making towards a more global perspective?

The group soon went their own ways, with Cuarón steering towards the mainstream, directing a Harry Potter movie, followed by the more interesting Children of Men and then Gravity in 2014. Iñárritu meanwhile charted a more curious course, seeking out edgy themes of displacement and alienation and the fragile futility of borders. 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful all offered interwoven stories and tangled timelines to reflect the complexity of the modern world.

Yet each of the films fell slightly short of expectations. Of the three, Babel was probably the most ambitious and therefore the most frustrating. The effort to combine three stories into a holistic tale of a world gone wrong somehow didn’t quite ring true. While we felt some compassion for the young boys in Morocco we never really got close to them. Likewise, the plight of the well meaning housemaid was eclipsed by the stress placed on the experience of the American characters; Brad Pitt and his wife, Cate Blanchett, who has just been shot. In a plot twist of stunning implausibility their two children have been driven across the Mexican border by a nanny who should not have been left minding the cat.

The intense focus on his survival leaves very little room for anything else.

Accounts of the filming of The Revenant describe the hellish conditions the crew braved. It was a bid to move away from the world of CGI, taking filmmaking back into the real world. “When you see The Revenant you will say wow,” is how the director described the result. In this sense they certainly succeeded. This is muscular, macho filmmaking. Almost every shot features Leonardo DiCaprio shivering against the elements, suffering in one way or another. The intense focus on his survival leaves very little room for anything else.

Ultimately, everything is subordinate to the theme of revenge and maybe this is a comment on our age. Revenge trails through recent history like a bloody thread. The last decade and a half has been dominated by the consequences of the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The subsequent endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have proved, if anything, just how pointless such a strategy is.

It’s tempting to compare The Revenant with an earlier version of the same story. Man in the Wilderness starring Richard Harris and John Huston was made in 1971. Here, in a manner that now seems reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, the men are carrying a boat loaded with furs across land to the Missouri River (they arrive to discover the river is dry). Although revenge propels Richard Harris’s character along his journey, it is also a story about personal discovery. In one scene he witnesses a woman giving birth to a child in the woods. This scene is the fulfillment of his desire to see his own child born, something which he missed out on. Without sentimentalizing them too much (this was the 1970s), the Native Americans are portrayed as cognitive human beings, intrigued for example, by the white man’s efforts to move such an unworldly object as a boat on wheels across a mountainous landscape.

Despite the stunning landscapes and the authenticity of the violence in The Revenant, the characters and what they represent miss the mark. Glass is a cipher, a man who has crossed the line into the world of the indigenous population. The son he is avenging is the sole survivor of the family he formed with a Pawnee woman. It is implied that this relationship was mutual, and not simply a case of the white man taking what catches his eye. They built a family. He speaks their language and so the death of the boy symbolizes not just the destruction of the Native American world, but also of the possibility of bridging the gap between the two cultures.

This may be reading more into the story than the director intended, but again it comes down to representation. In finding the balance between demonizing and sanctifying the Native Americans they should be real characters. The film shows the world from the white man’s perspective. The burden of representation falls to Glass. He must avenge his son because he loved him, but also because nobody else can or will. The indigenous people are whooping savages or wordless. Even if they are compassionate eccentrics, or victims, they are essentially wordless. For all its efforts to convey the beauty of the landscape and the natural environment, which the white trappers see only as a source of profit, Iñárritu’s film makes little of the indigenous people’s relationship to nature, where they take only what they need to survive.

All these are minor niggles compared to the overall feeling that the film succumbs to the age-old Hollywood trope of the native informant being saved by the white man.

Plot holes abound in The Revenant, whose storyline is minimalist by comparison to the complex earlier films. In such a stark outline the weaknesses stand out all the more. Some are glaring omissions. There are also odd choices, including the way the French trappers are depicted as the epitome of evil. All these are minor niggles compared to the overall feeling that the film succumbs to the age-old Hollywood trope of the native informant being saved by the white man. Hugo Glass’s motivation is the murder of his son. The wife is seen but never heard. It is left to Glass to rescue the Native American woman who is raped by a Frenchman and restore order to the world. If The Revenant does, as Iñárritu has claimed in interviews, hold up a lens to examine the roots of capitalism, and its impact on the indigenous communities, it does so by silencing them.

Iñárritu’s The Revenant, like his previous films, offers a tantalizing glimpse of possibility that is never quite realized. Perhaps we should simply take comfort in the fact that people like Iñárritu are in the game at all, that their presence irks the likes of Donald Trump. When Gravity – a film about Americans in space – won an Oscar for Alfonso Cuarón, Trump described it churlishly as a “great night for Mexico.” The audience for these films is the American viewership, and more specifically, it is the Academy of Motion Pictures and Art Sciences, where, to be fair, Iñárritu’s work has been well rewarded. On the other hand, now that we have got this far, perhaps we should be asking for more.

Jamal Mahjoub is a writer currently located somewhere in The Netherlands. His work has appeared in Best American Essays, Granta, and a host of other places. His prizewinning novels and short stories have been translated widely. He also writes crime fiction under the name Parker Bilal, the latest of which is The Burning Gates (Bloomsbury USA).

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