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Spoiler Alert: some story elements are revealed in this essay.

The word revenant means ‘one who has returned from the dead or from a long absence’.  In the case of Alejandro Iñárritu’s film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and written by Iñárritu with Mark Smith, it is DiCaprio’s true-to-history character of Hugh Glass that returns in order to take therevenatrevenge on the man who killed his son. So the story of The Revenant is one of nature and revenge, and nothing more.

That’s the simple part.

The not so simple part is actually analyzing this multi-layered film as a drama that transcends the revenge label to unveil a meditation on the relative nature of good and evil. As such The Revenant speaks to a modern audience who has in many ways lost the meaning of the word drama. The Revenant reintroduces film-goers to this recently problematic word as it explores the primal meaning of the human experience and attempts to strip bare civilized man (I say man because it is a film very much about men) to reveal what lies beneath.

Dramatists, artists and mystics, for the most part, seek to have us question the idea of absolute good and evil and hint at a common humanity that transcends our differences. The alternative is not really drama but more aptly labeled melodrama – what we are typically given in the name of drama.

This Trojan Horse agenda of the dramatist, artist and mystic – this request for us to question our simple and absolute morality – is at the heart of The Revenant. Yet, at the same time, the film portrays the tendency to seek absolutes in a relative world to be at the heart of the human experience, rising from the tendency to hate what brings us pain and to love what brings us pleasure. However, this film reveals, like any good drama will, that this primal human motive in no way shape or form delineates absolute good and evil, which is shown to be a chimera, changeable, relative, and completely dependent on your point of view.

To the Arikara tribe, the Americans are the enemy. To the Pawnee tribe, the French are the enemy.  To the lone Pawnee, the American Hugh Glass is a friend. To Hugh Glass, Fitzgerald is an enemy. To Fitzgerald, Hugh Glass who betrayed his deal with him is the enemy. To the Europeans, the lone Pawnee is an enemy. To the Americans, the Indians in general are the enemy. To the daughter of the Arikara leader, the character of Glass is a hero. To the American Captain, the child-man Bridger is revealed as a hero.  To the Grizzly Bear protecting her cubs and almost killing Hugh Glass, Glass himself is the enemy – and she is in many ways, in her primal protective mode, creating the entire dramatic context of the story.

Who then is the enemy, what then is this evil? Is it really mankind, imposing its will on pristine nature?

‘I leave the revenge to the Creator’, advises the lone Pawnee man to Glass, and Glass echoes this to Fitzgerald later in the story. The film, in conclusion, indicates it is better for human beings not to judge. This, indicates The Revenant, is the wiser path. That said, nature may not be without her own form of judgement.

As I watched The Revenant two other filmmakers came to my mind: Terrence Malick and P.T. Anderson, and more specifically Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  Reviews written by myself for Tree of Life and There Will Be Blood can be found here and here.

Misha Petrick has also compared Andrei Tarkovsky‘s visual style to The Revenant in a split screen video here, and Iñárritu himself suggested that Tarkovsky has had a deep influence on him. I have not seen all of Tarkovsky’s films but found the visual comparison compelling. In interviews, Iñárritu also mentions Herzog, Kurosawa, and others as influences on The Revenant.

That said, Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World also seem to me to be visual predecessors to The Revenant. Tree of Life and The New World, like Revenant, had a love affair between nature and the camera (in the case of The Revenant, an entirely new camera technology used to brilliant effect by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot The Tree of Life). Regardless, the result is art: the stillness of nature and its pristine framework forms the backdrop for men’s selfish machinations.

Nature, and particularly water, factor heavily in The Revenant as forces of both destruction and renewal. Many of the scenes of Revenant are directly or indirectly associated with streams or rivers. The dual nature of water, as both a destructive and redemptive force, are key to the evolution of the story.  So too in Tree of Life did the river become a redemptive force as the young boy Jack seeks to wash his sins away with the nightgown scene. The water cleanses, renews, and washes away the old in favor of the new.

As in The Tree of LifeThe Revenant shows that humankind’s social reality exists only within the context of a wider nature that is in many ways cold and without mercy. If mercy exists anywhere, The Revenant  shows it to be in the small, individual human gesture, such as when Bridger offers food to the Indian woman or leaves the canteen with Glass with the labyrinth-like design etched on it. The key difference between The Tree of Life and The Revenant is that while the former posits that compassionate choice may exist outside of the individual human and arise out of nature itself, The Revenant  more closely associates any potential compassion with the human realm; thus Tree of Life more directly supports the view that there is some sort of proto-rational, pre-human intelligence that leads us to choose compassion. For The Revenant, the creator God is reflected as a cold and judgmental nature, a nature that is essentially detached unless that detachment is altered by human will.

Tree of Life also suggests a detached universe reflected in the primordial expression of space and time that ultimately seeks a compassionate viewpoint when individual sentience (even animal sentience) arises. To Malick, as expressed in Tree of Life, this detachment could come in the way of an errant asteroid, also hinted at in The Revenant as the meteor flies overhead and lands somewhere in the distance. Both films posit that humanity lives within a certain folly in its obsession with the petty concerns of profit and loss, of pleasure and pain. That is, unless you’re a human being, in which case these petty human considerations are of life and death importance, and the meteor passing overhead is only a brief reminder of potential destruction and judgement from above, quickly forgotten as the next distraction takes hold of one’s consciousness and edges a person such as Fitzgerald in The Revenant to salvage the pelts, get the money, and pave one’s proverbial path to Texas.

It is in the mud that humanity must apparently sludge through in order to find redemption, and receive a glimpse of love and happiness.

What then is this love? Where shall it be found? Does love really present itself only when the proper choices are made, and when mankind turns away from hatred and realizes that nature (or God?) does not really judge us at all, that this too is a concept laid upon a pristine reality by the human mind?

These thoughts and questions meander through my own mind when reflecting back on The Revenant.

As for P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood I am reminded that blood, like water, is a primal force as it is in The Revenant. Blood is, it seems, the sacrifice required for growth in this world. So is Hugh Glass ‘reborn’ from the blood and guts from the ‘womb’ of the Horse, just as much as he is almost killed by the bloody attack from the Bear. Nature both gives and takes life, and blood and violence is required. The ‘fall’ into the womb of the horse therevenant3(like a lower realm of hell in Dante’s Inferno) also rebirths Glass into the more hate-filled and obsessive purpose of revenge, whereas prior he had primarily been motivated by the desire to live and breath. It is only the mercy of women, along with restraint in judging Fitzgerald, that eventually leads Glass back to human love.

For P.T. Anderson, violence is also justified, for it makes way for the new. In There Will Be Blood Anderson seems to promote the necessary bloodletting of the weak by the powerful, as the weak would have humanity forever acquiescing and accepting ‘the will of God/Nature’ and suffer needlessly as a result. This luddite thinking must be removed for progress to occur, or so goes the modern myth. Nature and others must be sacrificed, often violently, in the name of human progress, even if that progress ultimately destroys what it sought to merely dominate.

To D.D Lewis’s character Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of There Will Be Blood, those that seek a bloodless world are naïve and stripping mankind of the very force that gives it life and propels humanity forward. Thus Heaven or ‘spirit’, should they exist, are simply bloodless realities that the weak perennially and naively seek in order to escape what cannot be escaped from, the primal force of cold nature that doesn’t give a damn about them.

To the materialist, the ‘spiritual’ scenes in The Revenant of Glass vis-à-vis his wife are but mirages, hallucinations and mad meanderings. To the spiritual, they are visions of a greater, alternative world that transcends the perennial, bloody savagery of human life – no matter how hidden, sublimated, air brushed and ‘oh my goshed’ out of existence it is in our modern era – a savagery that buttresses the material world in its quest for food and shelter. The spiritual person replies that even if such realities are created by a hallucinatory mind, what makes them any less real than the hallucinations therevenant2of money and profit, of the shimmering hope of getting some land in Texas to settle down, as was the hope of the materialist Fitzgerald, a man who mocked God? His hope too, ultimately, was a chimera, a mirage, and a pipe dream. So too might be the very notion of human progress.

Whether ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ (with human beings the two often meld) it seems that human beings need a purpose.

It seems to me that human beings need a purpose in order to keep moving forward materially, artistically, or even spiritually. Without a purpose, whether that be revenge or love, heaven or hell, family or friends, profit or art, people cannot be adequately called human. Perhaps the problem with most of us is that we tend to let others define our purpose, rather than choose it for ourselves.

For the character of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, he very much chose his purpose by reacting to circumstances in a certain way.

For 20th Century Fox, an American Studio that put their stamp on an epic, big budget dramatic feature telling a human story that is not a super-hero movie or cartoonish blockbuster – and not gone to their ‘independent’ subsidiary to do so – perhaps that is another return from a long absence, another revenant of sorts. Time will tell.

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Don Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist.

 

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Seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was in a sense a return, because I had my film debut about ten years ago prior in the same lower east side New York City neighborhood where I wound up seeing Tree of Life this past week. Since both Malick and I seem to be inspired by a similar vision of film, and since both of us tol-002
(apparently) trace much of that back to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, it was almost as if I was watching an extension of Antonioni – as if Malick’s film was indeed another branch of an ever-growing tree.  While I’m not sure if Malick has ever seen my own Antonioni-inspired Clouds,  I found it striking that we came to similar conclusions about life and the expression of life through art, albeit via completely different paths.

As such, seeing Tree of Life was deeply personal and made me feel somewhat vindicated about the artistic choices in my own work – whether that be in film or the criticism thereof. With Tree of Life, Malick is expressing very much what I propose as an alternative direction in film style in an essay titled Peace As Style, where I discuss Antonioni as being the precursor to such a style.

In but one example, Malick effectively uses the ambiguity of sound and then later unveils the source of that sound in a kind of slow reveal that links the sound to a particular feeling or motif in such a way that he evokes mystery and awe, not the hyperventilating stimulation so often the norm today in film. Antonioni was extremely effective at the clever use of ambiguity to create a sense of mystery, and Malick, apparently inspired by Antonioni’s Zabriski Point, uses wind chimes to allude to the mystery of sex to which the young boy (played by Hunter McCracken) is slowly being revealed and later shamefully tries to rid himself by throwing the nightgown in the river. Once the source of the sound is seen (the wind chimes), and the boy steals the night-gown from his fantasy woman’s house, we don’t hear the sound again.

[As a side note, the nightgown scene has prompted more internet searches than any other I know of for this film, and apparently evokes deep, unresolved emotions. Suffice it to say many people are captured by the mystery of the scene and don’t understand the boy’s subsequent reaction. To me, he is clearly ashamed of creating a sexual fetish of the nightgown. He tries to hide the gown at first, then washes it down the river — an attempt to dissolve his guilt and shame into an overwhelming nature that washes away all sins and purifies his conscience as a result. I believe the scene essentially depicts the boy’s baptism into sexually-aware manhood.  As such, the nightgown evolves from a fetish to a sacred baptismal shroud.]

Ambiguity, used sparingly by most filmmakers today, becomes the central stylistic choice in Malick’s Tree of Life.  While most directors and producers are so afraid to alienate or offend an audience who, according to conventional wisdom, can only take things if spelled out literally, Malick assumes his audience is intelligent, and can follow his meandering, poetic connections.

Another example of the effective use of sound is the peaceful and alluring sound the ocean, which bookends the film – beginning with the ‘spirit image’ the beach scene at the end, where the various characters meet to reconcile in a timeless, meditative state. All of this stuff is so counter to the normal fodder we are fed on television and film that it is extremely gratifying to find the critical response to Tree of Life to be so favorable, although the film apparently did receive some booing at its Cannes premiere (as did Antonioni with some of his films). The film did win the top prize at Cannes, which also helped assuage the critics. My challenge to Fox Searchlight is to go as wide as possible with this film; they might be surprised by the outcome, particularly among a Christian audience.

Tree of Life is built on the use of motifs, used brilliantly with sound and source slowly revealed, cyclic re-occurrence, the grand scale of time being interleaved with the present moment. Malick’s particular approach, at least in this film, is more akin to music than the Hollywood style that traces its roots back to D. W. Griffith, kinetic editing and The Great Train Robbery. Instead, Malick seems to draw his inspiration from the Bible, surrealists (Bunuel and Dali), Italian neo-realist filmmakers (Fellini and Antonioni), existential science fiction films (Tarkovsky and Kubrick) and the literature of William Faulkner and James Joyce. Tree of Life is a grand amalgam of sometimes contradictory influences, including an effusive orchestration from Smetana’s The Moldau, and yet reaching beyond these influences even while honoring their undeniable presence.

It is a testament to the encyclopedic scope of the film, one can find various critics not only responding in completely different ways, but referring to completely different sets of (assumed) influences that Malick brought to his film.  As such, the film is a Rorschach test of sorts, and one can take from it multiple readings, which I’m sure is Malick’s intent, and shows how powerful his multi-layered ambiguity can be as a storytelling device.

To turn to the thematic elements of Tree of Life, I have written in the SolPix webzine and blog about the need for a more ‘humanistic’ media and film and even elaborated further to use the term ‘spiritual humanism.’ Malick’s film is, I would say, a spiritually humanistic film for several reasons. First, he deals with the subject of the origins and nature of violence and compassion and their relationship to human choice. Second, he seeks a balance between nature and mankind’s desire to control nature. Third, he sees reconciliation as the answer to questions of meaning and happiness. Finally, he sees something binding all these threads, or branches, of life together (even an extra-human aspect): love. And this love compels the tree to grow ever outward from its branches. From a biblical perspective, the tree is also a source of knowledge. But the overall energy and essence that drives this movement of life is a love that Malick sees shimmering through the light of his images and characters, of nature, of far-flung galaxies, of the extra-dimensional ‘non-physical’ – in short,  the entirety of life itself.

While it is generally uncomfortable to discuss an extra-human love in a culture where our obligatory ‘love you’s’ are generally restricted to our close familial ties, if we are to believe Malick, the force of love is quite large and behind everything we see in the natural world and beyond. Call this force ‘God’ or whatever name you will, it is tangible as long as we make it so. It is this existential choice to, in essence, choose and create an alternative to a cold universe, that takes Mr. Malick beyond Antonioni, who generally only saw despair in his landscapes, and very little hope. From a philosophical perspective, this probably puts Malick closer to the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard and further from the absurdism and alienation of Camus, who would find better company with Antonioni.

In terms of compassion, it is apparent that Malick sees compassion as one choice among many. This is why the dinosaur scene was so pivotal and important. He is showing us that there is a primal, non-rational (or proto-rational) choice involved in treating others compassionately; that this choice in a sense comes from beyond us, yet does nonetheless express itself in daily human decisions. It is the same choice Mr. Obrien’s children make when deciding not to hit their father (played in a tour de force performance by Brad Pitt), even as he chides them to do so while he teaches them to box and defend themselves.

As for nature, the imposition of the (male) architecture over the (feminine) natural world is, apparently, the wider tragedy of human existence to date, and a theme clearly traceable to Antonioni’s early works.  It is the exploration of this ‘architectural’ theme that makes Sean Penn’s scenes so important (some critics have suggested they should have been cut). It is the dwarfing of the natural landscape when compared to mankind’s architected space – seen through the modern scenes – through which something is lost. This pattern happens as one chooses the path of ‘nature’ (in the negative sense of the will to dominate) over ‘grace’, according to the preamble of the film. The grown son (moodily played by Sean Penn)  finds himself dwarfed by his own creation, but he is unhappy because there is no love in his architecture, only utility. He longs for the love of the natural world and of his mother (delicately played by Jessica Chastain) for which he has destroyed in an egoistic attempt at control as he attempts to overcome the (perceived) failings of his father.

Thus the decidedly ‘male’ perspective finds its limits; for on a grander, larger scale, it is mystery – one might say the feminine – still reigns supreme. We cannot ‘know’ reality by the rational mind, just as the natural world cannot ultimately be ‘tamed’ by architecture and science. In truth, we live by grace, or the force of will, depending on your perspective and your choice. But clearly the individual will cannot control the larger, herculean forces of nature. We could, for example, be wiped out in an instant by an errant asteroid. And even if we controlled all the asteroids, some other, larger calamity would rear its head. Thus the great winds of time and space, of galaxies and stars, which provide the context for mankind’s ‘will’ – a will that in an attempt to impose itself on nature does so only with a certain folly and arrogance, for nature is, and always has been, the wider context through which we live. Any attempt to control nature in the broadest sense is futile, and if some semblance of this does happen only occurs through the mastery achieved through the reconciling power of love — a process Malick refers to as ‘grace.’

Further, Malick seems to argue that love is the natural evolutionary path for humanity. Mankind, stubborn to prove otherwise, continually tries to control through his will (and the proxy servants of science and technology) what cannot ultimately be controlled, but rather must be surrendered to and accepted in order to find peace. Without this surrendering there is only conflict, only suffering. So it is the binding nature of love and reconciliation, as seen at the end of the film as the characters reconcile in timelessness on the beach, returning to the ocean from which they arose – it is here that Malick beckons us toward a path that is separate from the contentiousness of domination and control and toward a more ‘New Testament’ vision of acceptance, surrender and compassion, and it is through that path that Malick asserts we will find happiness. And again, we are compelled in this direction by the life force itself.

As a bit of personal background, Malick had just released Days of Heaven when I was in film school in the early eighties. At that time I was studying European film, with a focus on Antonioni.  Zabriski Point, Blow Up, The Passenger – all of these films by Antonioni were fresh on my mind. It was nearly twenty years later (in 1998) before Malick would return to film, and nearly twenty years later (in 2000) before I would return to film after a long stint on a different career path outside of film and the arts. Now, decades after the French and American New Wave, Malick returns to re-assert the power of those film artists who apparently impacted many of us so deeply, and pay homage to the artistic territory they staked out — to extend the branches of the tree they and his life represent. Malick, as a cinophile and philosophy teacher of a certain age, was certainly impressed in his youth by many of the same directors I was: Kubrick, Antonioni, Godard, Fellini, and so on. It was these (mostly) Europeans, who also had such an impact on the likes of Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who molded my own opinions about the potential for film and film language, and, moreover, how to create a uniquely American aesthetic that nonetheless pays homage to these great European masters who offered us an alternative to the studio film and style. Malick continues that tradition with Tree of Life. It’s not that all films must conform and be like Tree of Life, but certainly our cultural palette must and should include many more films of a similar aesthetic.

Malick, who began his career in the early seventies (with Badlands) at roughly the same time as Martin Scorsese, became in a sense our lost master. Again, after Days of Heaven he wasn’t seen again for 20 years. Thankfully, he has returned to us in full glory. This is a glory that he himself would eschew; for the glory he sees is not so much in himself as an artist, but as a vessel of the beauty of life that he sees around him, and a translator and messenger to us of that beauty. While many of our most financially successful filmmakers are more architects than artists – technicians under the employ and influence of more utilitarian forces – Mr. Malick is an artist and a teacher, and, miraculously, one now allowed to express himself in a fairly unrestricted way. Malick may have given us more if he had the chance, but fortunately what we wind up with is his best, for that is what he seems to demand of himself.

We may look back on Mr. Malick’s recent work and see it as the beginning of a re-invigorated American art cinema. Suffice it to say that Mr. Malick sees the world through a different, more compassionate lens than the (currently) dominant forces in society and in film. He is leading us toward a new sensibility, and we should follow.

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Don Thompson is a producer/filmmaker and essayist. You can visit nextPix here.

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