With every new film we, Native Americans, hold our breath and hope we get treated right onscreen.
Hollywood is our serial cinematic abuser and we never know what’s coming next. We breathe a little easier when we don’t look like fools or furniture, and we give our money to the masters for fair and humane portrayals. I’m a little tired of it, and I’m sure I’m not alone. But to quote Dolly Parton, “Here you come again, and here I go.” So, let’s Revenant!
I started to write this up as I sat in the lobby of the theater, waiting for my lovely wife to pick me up (she skipped the trip to the movies with me: “Oh, we’ll see it on demand or something,” she said) surrounded by what appeared to be extras from the film I just watched, and I wanted to write so hard, but I waited ‘til I got home, so all this Leo could percolate …
(I’ll have you know that in the course of watching this film I finally used up this hotel desktop notepad I kept from Harrah’s in Reno, Nevada. It seems fitting, because while we may think “The Revenant” director Alejandro González Iñárritu gambled big-time here with this film, like the house, the deck was always stacked in his favor. He had to know people were going to love this film.)
For audiences interested in Westerns in general, “The Revenant” is the blood-orange course before the coffee and brandy, a beautifully shot cinematic sorbetto to cleanse our palate after the mucky clottiness of “Tonto and the Lone Ranger” and “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” and that Sandler thing that left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. It’s brilliant and good and one of those productions that makes you say, “Well that’s what movies are supposed to be.”
It begins with a breath, like life itself, of course. And it continues with us hearing Pawnee spoken. The first human voice is Pawnee. Hmmm. The tone for the film is then set by Leo’s character, Hugh Glass: “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight.” Breath. Native language. Fighting. Got it.
Like James Welch in “Fool’s Crow” constantly settling us within his narrative via directions and colors as we move through the land, Iñárritu gives us Air (breath), Fire, Earth, and Water right up through the titling and opening credits. We are centered in the world he has created, and all the elements are in place. We move through the woods until we come upon some elk — we know Leo is going to shoot one, and we wince along as it happens.
A parallel attack is occurring contemporaneously (get used to that parallel thing). As the trapper camp comes under fire, I am underwhelmed and overjoyed at the old familiar, “We’re surrounded!” I had really high hopes here, but well, man. You know.
A party of Arikaras attacks the camp while Leo ratchets up his face acting. He’s going for the gold on this one. Magic Bullet Theory (MBT) isn’t too bad here, with most Native-fired arrows finding their mark; but yeah, all the white muskets can’t miss. (In MBT, white bullets invariably find their mark; and no matter what angle they are fired from, they are almost 100-percent fatal.) There must be some kind of marksman school/coming of age thing they all attend back in St. Louis or something before they head out into the West.
In the middle of the fight we meet a new character. Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald character is quickly someone to note, of course, cinematic convention being what it is. But while he’s all about “the pelts! The pelts!” “Grab the pelts!” (x2), it’s never really that simple in his delivery. Seriously, this dude needs an award, and we look forward to figuring out what drives him, even as his dialogue is minimal here, the camera spends a lot of time on his face and POV, and he gets a chance to emote in droves.
Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
That intimacy, that depth, is of course not written into any of the Native roles, and we would be foolish to think that it would be. Only Native writers and artists will write those roles, and we should probably get that fact out of the way. But—and I think this is important in the context of this film and others with similar receptions — it is a film meant to at least be appreciated by Native people, if not fully embraced by them. I’ve used this quote before, but again, “Nothing about us without us is for us” is applicable here. The level of Native advisement and involvement in this production is fairly high, and though those considerations are evident in the film by turns, there is little nuance allowed in the roles filled by Native actors. (For a look at the results of a lack of Native advisement and involvement, and to check out the latest in a long line of films that are harmful to Native people, just see Adam Sandler’s “Ridiculous Six” over on Netflix.)
By way of brief and introductory example, each white death during the fight at the camp is intimate and personal, and the horror of brutally dying on the frontier is clearly meant to be identified with by the audience, while Native deaths are typically generic, distantly portrayed, fodder-like fatalities from old Hollywood. The Arikara assault itself initially seems generic as well, a standard “Old-Time Indian Attack,” but we eventually figure out that they are searching for Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk'o), the daughter of Elk Dog (Duane Howard). As we are introduced to this man out to bring his kidnapped daughter home, we can anticipate a few things about him. Duane Howard portrays a man with a relentless mission, and a formidable intellect. As we watch an interaction with some French trappers later on and we know it’s coming before one of them even says, “I told you he speaks French,” we recall this introduction as we tell ourselves right along with the film, “of course Elk Dog speaks French.” He’ll later remind the audience (and the settler states of the U.S. and Canada), “You have stolen everything from us.”
As the narrative inevitably returns to the white storyline, our focus is now fully on Tom Hardy, who brings a complex intensity to the character of Fitzgerald — a subtly scared, working-class Texan ex-soldier out on the frontier, trying to make a future for himself and get home in one piece. He conveys a palpable fear of either poverty or Arikaras in almost every scene, and when we finally see his half-scalped head, well, now we know why. Listening to him deliver lines though, is another matter altogether. Hardy himself said his portrayal was, “A little bit of tribute” to Sgt. Barnes from Platoon, but let’s be real — he sounds like a cross between Amish Mafioso Lebanon Levi and a supremely tranquil if foul-mouthed Yosemite Sam. There’s a particularly filthy two-word phrase he throws out a couple of times, which, though rooted in its racist times, is actually a distemporal anomaly. Unless Hardy or the writers had some secret time-traveling informants, “tree n*@#er” is not an actual contemporary epithet, not that I’ve heard, not that I’ve found — someone here has literally missed the forest for the trees, and its use in 1823 is questionable at best. Additionally, Americans tend to disparage/slander/verbally attack Native people using wider physical epithets than that; the term you would have had Fitzgerald use would be “timber n*@#er,” or, if you had moved further down east and out of the mountains, “prairie n*@#er” would’ve been your slur of choice. Both in fact are still in use in this country, and ignorant, racist, redneck viewers of the Deep North would have accepted either term.
Rounding out the frontier bro squad is Domhnall Gleeson, who looks like a lite, fresh version of Fitzgerald. He’s an officer here — maybe or maybe not college-educated, but certainly of a different class than Fitzgerald. His Captain Henry is the clean mirror image to the dirty-on-multiple-levels trapper. The camera doesn’t spend a lot of time with him, and his visual and plot definition is a little fuzzy at this point. He doesn’t enter the story with any weight until the murder, which takes place shortly after more connections to breath, including a story about the importance of breath all while talking about being defeated by the wind. The imagery is visually reinforced by the Northern lights and that wind, that seeming breath of the lights at the top of the world. A tip that might be for a Native audience appears; it’s of the infamous Buffalo skull pile image NDN’s know all too well. When the murder does occur, there’s a cut to the tops of the screaming trees who have witnessed the act in horror.
This point in the film is a point of discussion for the cast the story takes in relation to Native people, the one where we decide whether this is a “Dances With Bears” white savior story, or something else entirely and I think the answer is in the reaction of DiCaprio’s Glass to the murder. What we see is a father expressing love for, and anguish at, the loss of his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). His SON. He’s not a “white savior,” and he’s not “Dancing With Bears.” That his son’s mother is Native, is Pawnee, is a fact of the first decade of the 19th century when that son would’ve been born. If anything, the presence of a Pawnee son makes the film far more an attempt at historical accuracy than white saviorship.
For his all his mourning and emoting, Leo gets thrown in a shallow grave, covered in dirt and buried with water (remember, right — like breath, water is life. And earth is life. Where is the fire in this elemental equation? you ask. You’ll see. It comes in a bit.), the water contained in an inexplicably-carved canteen (the spiral etched on it, we suppose, is meant to mean “life” or something similar), placed there (with hope for revenance, we think) by the carver, a young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter. Poulter’s first appearance was frankly startling, as I didn’t realize he was in the film, and the last time I saw him in something, he was recovering from a tarantula bite).
We return again to Leo’s breathing, and as I sit in the theater, taking notes, I just write THIS FUCKING PHOTOGRAPHY, and then I continue on to talk about Leo’s breathing (and I notice that this is the umpteenth time I’ve written “Leo,” just like I’ve written “Tom Hardy” so this probably doesn’t bode well for my thoughts regarding possible Oscars for either, as it does seem like we’re watching Leo rather than Glass, except maybe when he’s down by the river, that seems to be where he submerges (hehe) himself in his character and is incidentally where that aforementioned fire necessary to life comes in—Leo goes classic western and cauterizes that nasty unclosing neck wound with some good old-fashioned gunpowder medicine) which sounds like that of a revenant, a ghoul, a zombie. And here something occurs to me, something I like quite a bit—Glass and Hawk both speak English, but never use it with each other. They speak Pawnee only, and not only when they’re being attacked by Fitzgerald. The significance of that language use cannot be underestimated. And out here IRL, language in much of Native-produced film is a vital marker of its aesthetic.
There is a nice fourth wall break with Leo’s breath condensing onto the lens followed by a triple dissolve of Leo, Hardy smoking, and the fog of Creator’s breath in the mountains—a reaffirmation of the film’s three main characters, and an intro to the next act. As I watch Leo drag himself around in preparation for it, the tension ratchets up as I keep waiting for him to rebreak his leg so he can properly set it, all while I’m thinking Leo, bro, you need some mittens. In lieu of him getting those though, we ask “Is that a Rambo headband or is there a wound up there we don’t know about?” Leo makes his way out of camp.
We’re then given a pair of absurd scenes—not sure what Iñárritu is up to here, but there’s a cut to Fitzgerald telling Bridger, “God is a squirrel.” I hereby nominate Tom Hardy for True Detective III. And then we’re back to Leo, who Gollums a fish, even though he had a fire blazing 20 feet away on the bank. Maybe the director is giving us a peek at some of the supposed craziness and arduousness that was going down on set. Or, like that legendary hater of actors, director Lucio Fulci, he just wanted to torture Leo…at any rate, just over the ridge, it’s
TATANKA! And oh my god, they’re Dancing With Wolves. Well, actually, at the moment, they’re trying not to get eaten by wolves. One of them however, is not so lucky. Leo observes for a moment or two, and then, I guess, goes and takes a nap. Later (much later, as it’s dark), Leo heads back up the little rise from his camp by the river and sees a FLAMING WOLF (which, by the way, is an awesome Pretendian name). I’m sorry—this sequence actually made me LOL in the theater. (Also, there’s some at-times-crazy synth music in this film and I’m wondering — is this from MANEATER/ MIAMI VICE? Is it by Alvo Nota or Aldo Nova? I have to find that song…). The flickering torch and the wolves is so reminiscent of Dances With Wolves here that it can’t be an accident. Lucky for Leo, though, that the guy torching the wolves and stealing their meat isn’t a Lakota, or the movie would’ve ended right there, and Leo wouldn’t be coming back from that one. Turns out, after some rough charades by Leo, though that he is Pawnee, (the character is Hikuc, played by Arthur RedCloud). He tells Leo just a couple of things—“Sioux killed my people,” and music to Leo’s ears: “You will ride with me.” I’m thinking this bodes well for Leo and the story, but I have to ask of his new pal, Why does he eat like that? Like a little kid? And why doesn’t he clean his face after eating? His arms? Who would want to be covered in blood walking around Bear Country? There’s water 20 yards away…
As Hikuc and Leo make their way across the land, headed, we suppose, toward Pawnee country, Leo must stink to high heaven right through that buffalo robe, because there’s a scene after a bit that has Hikuc telling Leo, “Your body is rotten.” Leo here is a revenant, a zombie, rotting on the trot. I’m like can we get some sage or something?
And then, again, the appearance of breath. A wind picks up. Hikuc starts to cut saplings. I ask, “Is he building a lodge?” Soon the wind brings a storm. This seems to spur Hikuc to build the lodge, but that wasn’t clear at first. I think he was building the lodge for purification, to try and cure Leo of his rotting flesh and his poisons, but that’s not made clear. In any instance, the wind that’s caused the building of the lodge, the centrality of breath to life is apparent. This lodge is a variation here. It will be used doubtless to purify, to heal Leo but he hallucinates (of course) a trip to an abandoned church. There are two ways to look at that journey—either the brokenness of ineffectiveness of the Christian faith in this place, or as a comparative spirituality (the lodge/church).
A journey of another kind gets underway as Leo emerges (reemerges/rebirths) from the lodge. Hikuc is gone. Leo heads out. He shortly finds his friend dead, hanging from a tree with a sign in French hanging from his neck. I believe the sign said “on ton des sauvages / one of your savages.” Leo has approached the camp of the French trappers. These men are of course utterly despicable. Leo interrupts a trapper's rape of Powaqa; she cuts off the man's testicles just like she told him she would. Is Leo going to “save” the woman and then leave? (I say to myself, “Please don’t Pocahontas this thing Please don’t Pocahontas this thing Please don’t Pocahontas this thing”) They flee the camp in separate directions, but Leo has left behind canteen. Yes, yes. We know that’s significant.
Meanwhile, back at the fort, FitzHardy’s working class trap is on display when he tries to squeeze some money out of the captain so he can take off for Texas; he finds he’s taken out more in goods on the trip than he’ll be paid.
Leo gets chased over a cliff and lands in what I finally think this movie seems to ultimately be about—trees. Here I thought that Star Wars Leo seemed unnecessary (“rugged frontier life is disgusting!”) but after wondering where his buffalo robe went in the next scene, I guess it makes sense. And BONUS — Leo is reborn! Again! Big breath! And off to the final act.
At the fort, one of the French trappers begs entry and food. As he turns over all he possesses, they find the canteen- significant! Le Revenant! They put together a search party. We’re in the trees of the Forest of the Moon. Well, we imagine it must be the Forest of the Moon mentioned earlier by one of the “Arikara Warriors” (who come with numbers only, but since he talked, maybe he’s #1. That would be Dion Little Child.) because when we look through the trees, well, how about that—a big full moon. And sure enough the search party, like a bunch of Wall Streeters with 10-year federal sentences, find Jesus! er, Leo! standing under the moon.
Back at Ft. Kiowa, Hardy steals the money. (We know he did, because we know he knows where it is because we, like he, paid attention in an earlier scene when Capt. Ginger went upstairs to get him his blood money) He has to. It’s his trap, his burden. The good captain wants to go after him. Leo takes a bath, watered, refreshed, ready, breathing, he gets ready to track down FitzHardy.
Out in the field, FitzHardy kills the Captain. Ever with an eye toward escape (or maybe he really is that disturbed), he scalps Gleeson, we imagine, so that it will look as if the Arikaras are to blame. I wonder to myself why only Leo and the good captain set out after FitzHardy, but yeah, cinema and all. Leo grabs up the captain’s corpse, ties him to his horse and journeys on.
We cut to FitzHardy up on a ridgeline, looking down at Leo on horseback leading the captain’s mount and body. I’m like, awesome. This is a total Navajo Joe moment (great film — directed by Sergio Corbucci in 1966 starring Burt Reynolds — the particular scene here is kinda ripped off in “The Dark Knight,” and the music and other things by Tarantino in “Kill Bill Vol. 2”), and if I hadn’t seen it multiple times it would’ve been wonderful.
Anyway, Leo and Hardy lose the 1800’s Rambondannas and now mirror each other totally, complete white Jesus-hair and all. The fight looks like it takes place in front of an oil-painted backdrop; this shit is going to be majestic. Ooooh! The knife. Classic face-cut. Epic.
FitzHardy’s coat gets ripped open during the fight. We see him wearing a necklace — I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be either the carved baculum of some unfortunate animal he met in his travels or the bleached out rattle of an ill-fated snake from his home state / ultimate destination of Texas.
They fight the Fight To The Death fight for a while and then FINALLY! Elk Dog and the rest of the party show up. Without giving it away, Leo gives it all to “the Creator” and Powaqa gives some of the best NDN woman side eye I’ve ever seen, and that includes a whole lot of second-place jingle dancers. Will there be a Pocahontas moment? What do you think?
Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
The final scene is amazing (if, that is, you can stop thinking about Chapstick® like you have been for the last 15 minutes or so). Leo stares at the audience, his eyes commanding the Academy for the award, and his breath reminding you why, haunting you all the way home.
For interested audiences, a note. This cast and crew made a movie, a period piece, a new Western. They made it on Native land (it’s always ALL Native land, to be sure, but they mention it) and they thanked the “Stoney Nakoda, Arikara, and Pawnee First Nations,” though I did notice that none of the principal Native actors had personal assistants on set like a lot of the non-Native actors did. They’re artists. They care about making the best art they can AND they’re humanists. They learned something about Native people (Leo, to be fair, learned more, since he already knew some things from being in New York City at the climate change protests with Native activists), and they talked about it at an awards show. Should they talk more, and do more? We hope they will. Until then, we can
Dr. Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr.
Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr. is Assistant Professor and Co-Chair of Native American Studies at the University of Montana. His edited volume The Faster Redder Road: TheBest UnAmerican Stories of Stephen Graham Jones was released in 2015 by the University of New Mexico Press. He has been interviewed by The Washington Post, CBC, Native America Calling, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, and Al-Jazeera America Television on a variety of subjects, from Native representation and Tonto to Spaghetti Westerns, H&M headdresses, and 'Twilight.'