Critiquing empire through the white man’s gaze – a review of The Revenant

The Revenant has been widely praised, not least for its apparent critique of colonial expansion. However, while its de-romanticisation of the frontier is an improvement on recent cinematic glorification of imperialist violence, the colonised subjects remain largely silent. Joe Hayns reviews.

The adverts punting The Revenant are now showing fifteen (or is it twenty?) five-star reviews, and sleeping in a dead horse may have earned Leo an Oscar. That the film is, seemingly, an ethnocide-and-all flick about imperial expansion in early 19th century America has been part of its appeal to critics. How real, though, is this apparent critique?

There is a plot. A British-led trapper expedition gets attacked by Arikara; an injured Hugh Glass (Di Caprio) is entrusted to Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald, who leaves Glass for dead; Glass seeks revenge, and gets it. Whilst the story’s thin, the cinematography and sound are each appreciable. Some shots would stand as nice-enough snow-scene snaps, and the drips, trills, and squelches that soundtrack the killing are at least as plausible as the sound of any documentary about puffins, say; these technics aside, however, it is the nostalgic politics of the piece that make it most interesting.

Who is Fitzgerald? Racist, money-crazed, and – his worst feature – with machine-like ability, Hardy’s character is border brutality distilled. Leonardo’s Glass is different, the film says. Though employed by the British (‘we’ll shoot some civilization into the rifraf’, as a drunk captain boasts), he has a son by a Pawnee woman, vouchsafing Glass as, if not particularly good, then at least less minded to genocide than the other white characters. Apart from these two, however, there is barely no other characterisation; this is empire-making understood only as a protracted, heaving bro’-off. In this, the film’s real sensibility is Vietnam vintage.

For anyone born after 1980 outside of Southeast Asia or America, the Vietnam War is probably imagined through one or more of four films: The Deerhunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987), all of which were at least nominated for Academy Awards. Platoon and Full Metal Jacket are largely driven by a contest between regionally-accented psychopaths versus well-intentioned college grads, whereas The Deerhunter and Apocalypse Now, both ‘better’ films, are extended reminders that mechanized killing in the tropics isn’t necessarily good for white men’s mental health (the pay-off being Art, or at least Oscars). People from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are either dead, alive but jabbering, or – and this character is rare but crucial to the genre – alive and very cruel (the sniper in Full Metal Jacket; the men that force the Americans to play Russian Roulette in The Deerhunter). All four films, then, are largely about American men at war, rather than the Vietnam massacre per se; notice, though, that there is at least some doubt about imperial consolidation, however solipsistic.

Things though became simpler after 9/11, at least for those who tend to look at war from the perspective of Apaches (the helicopter, that is). In the European-American films on the post-9/11 conflicts, the tussle has generally not been between different ways of being armed white men, as with Vietnam-era films, but between a largely similar bunch of hero-warriors – some morally grubbier than others, granted – and a brown population that are either only dubiously unarmed or assuredly killable, whether very slowly (Zero Dark Thirty) or very quickly (American Sniper).

Perhaps The Revenant should be praised as being what is, these days, fairly rare: a film that is sceptical about the morality of expansion, albeit mainly through the bad-apple trope that Fitzgerald and a few others embody (there is also a gruesome French officer, natch). It is politically similar to, though a grade less tacky than, the already-forgotten post-9/11 outlier, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Still, what felt fresh about that film and The Revenant – their showing that some frontiersmen are devils – is, in fact, four decades old (indeed, remembering that Conrad and even Kipling having had their doubts, we start to smell quite how stale The Revenant really is).

Perhaps it’s not enough to say that the glossiest, costliest parts of empire’s visual culture are imperialistic. What else is there on the expansion of ‘civilization’? Since we’re in the Americas, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) feels a realistic portrayal of calculations and psychoses that drove European empire-making in central America (that the conquistadors speak German is both politically brilliant and thrifty); very strong too is Patricio Guzaman’s three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (1975, ’76, and ’79), a stunning, plebeian showing of massed resistance against US-backed reaction on the continent.

Empire isn’t always men with guns, of course, and The Revenant‘s storytelling-through-grunts made two other recent films on the experience of borders in the Americas seem all the more furious, and more humane, too. Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River(2008) is on the relationship between working-class women either side of a Mohawk reservation line, whilst Diego Quemada-Diez’s La jaula de oro (The Golden Dream; 2013) makes Northern viewers see forced migration – from Guatemala, in the film’s case – as a time both of solidarity and personal trauma; each film, through showing the pure brutishness of borders, succeeds where The Revenant fails.



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