Carmina Ravanera and Cassandra Pilla. 27.01.2016
The Revenant is one of the most buzzworthy movies this season, with all the talk of the bear attack, Leo’s Oscar bait, and its beautiful aesthetics. It follows the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass and his quest for revenge after being abandoned and left to die by his companions in 19th century South Dakota. Recently, we went to see the movie, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and the amazing man who played the bear. We had much to say about it! Fair warning for spoilers from this point on.
Cassandra: First, the positives. What I most enjoyed about this movie was the amazing cinematography. The director really made the most out of shooting the film in remote Canadian and Argentinian locations. The visual aspects were absolutely breathtaking, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a new episode of BBC’s Planet Earth.
Carmina: I was stunned by the beauty of the landscapes and the masterful way in which Iñárritu captured their vastness on screen. I had little problem with the technicalities, the cinematography, the score, etc. I can’t fault the performances either, which were pretty gripping overall. But let’s get to the more interesting stuff, like the film’s representation of women and of indigenous people. What are your thoughts on the film’s two female characters?
Cassandra: Well, it is important to point out that this movie is about heteronormative, patriarchal masculinity. Hugh Glass’s (played by Leonardo diCaprio) story is about a man’s ability to overcome the natural world and defeat his male enemies. The film is uncreative in its portrayal of two indigenous female characters: one being Glass’s Pawnee wife, and the other the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara man. Both women are relegated to roles where they are solely defined by the fact that they are possessed by the men in the story, and by their abuse at the hands of white men. Hugh’s wife is killed, and the Arikara daughter is kidnapped and raped, on screen.
That rape scene for me was the epitome of the gratuitous violence in this film. It added nothing to the story and it felt as if the only purpose was to show the ‘raw, natural, primitive’ masculinity of frontiersmen, and the ‘lawlessness’ of the ‘uncivilized’ wilderness where the story takes place, reinforced by the equally violent castration of one of the rapists.
Carmina: The rape of the Arikara daughter was horrifying. The movie depicts the brutal sexual violence that was and still is perpetuated against indigenous women, and then it glamorizes the event by situating it within an action scene. Of course, Glass nobly saves her from her rape, and is neatly rewarded for it in the end, depicting, as you said, his heroic masculinity. While the movie was more respectful of indigenous peoples and cultures than other media often has been, the issue of violence against indigenous women is a very current one and that scene was indelicate, to say the least. And what’s even worse is that many online voices were arguing about whether or not Leo was being “raped” by a bear in the trailer, and whether this was acceptable, but subsequently failed to voice concerns about the actual, onscreen, human rape.
However, I’m not sure I would say that Glass’ wife is defined by her death, but by her continuing relationship with Glass as a mythicized dead woman, a very common trope for female characters.
Cassandra: But I do feel that she is mostly characterized by her death. With the focus on the death of Glass’s indigenous wife and child at the hands of white men, the viewers are compelled to see injustice only as central to Glass’s personal life, rather than reflecting on these events as social injustices of Western conquest. Additionally, Glass’s wife is dead throughout the whole movie, negating the need for the representation of her story beyond saving Glass. Both his indigenous wife and son are just used to humanize Glass as someone greater than a simple fur trapper – he is depicted as being more noble than his peers as he can ‘appreciate’ the indigenous peoples of the land he occupies.
Carmina: Yes, but what I meant is that beyond her death, she fits the common characterization of dead wives or lovers who do not get a chance to become anything beyond this mythical figure whom the male protagonist has dreamy visions about. And that representation of indigenous women, looking at men in prairie grasses in really nice lighting, is almost always the only way they are ever characterized. They don’t appear in mainstream media unless it is to be a character on the side of a man’s adventure story.
I’d also like to note that whenever such criticism of female portrayal is put forward, I often see others commenting things like, why would they give women more of a role in this movie if it’s supposed to be about Glass’ struggle? The movie has to be about a white man. But we have to critique that idea in general. Movies do not have to be a certain way. Every filmmaker and scriptwriter makes conscious decisions about what a movie should be about, and who gets to have struggles, perspectives, and stories. These decisions are made based on whom viewers think is worth watching, whom filmmakers believe are worth making movies about, and what production companies believe is worth funding.
Cassandra: The film industry does choose, over and over again, to make these stories about white men, and ignores the perspectives of the non-white, non-male characters. And another aspect that I find interesting is that the historical consultant here was the same man hired to consult for The New World (2005), another film where the indigenous woman was a spiritual/magical savior of the white male protagonist, who falls in love with her.
Carmina: But in terms of indigeneity, I at least appreciated the single line where the Arikara chief spoke about the harms that white men had done to them. And it made me wish people were more fully aware of all the vast effects — social, political, economical, emotional — that still harm indigenous peoples as a result of these periods in history that we tend to relegate to the complete past.
Cassandra: Overall, I was mostly disappointed with this movie, given all the hype surrounding it. Other than what we’ve mentioned, I thought it was much too long, and I was not all that impressed with Leo’s performance: I felt he was most compelling when he was interacting with the other actors, which did not happen often. I would recommend watching this movie for the bear attack, that part was awesome!
Carmina: If a little scary — I had to cover my eyes. I hope at least the bears of the world feel accurately represented by this movie!