How “The Revenant” falls short: storytelling our way back to belonging

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In his Oscar acceptance speech last February for “The Revenant,” Leonardo DiCaprio goes through the usual list of thank-you’s, then launches into weightier matters:

“Making ‘The Revenant’ was about man’s relationship to the natural world, a world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow.”

DiCaprio has been a passionate and articulate spokesman on climate change for at least ten years, ever since his ponderous narration of the film, “Eleventh Hour,” in which he appears dressed in black, with an overly sober, almost frightening demeanor and message of: “You people are bad; clean up your act.”

He also appeared on the cover of the Vanity Fair “Green” issue at least once, and who knows, maybe his impressive voice will grace the slickly produced and sadly off the mark ad campaign, “Nature is Speaking,” by Conservation International. He could deliver a message from the climate to add to scoldings from Harrison Ford’s ocean and Liam Neeson’s ice.

My point is, here’s a guy so passionate about climate and the future of human tenure on earth, that he dedicates at least a portion of his professional work to telling stories that raise important questions. His presence on this scene points up the dire need for compelling storytelling, not only as a mirror to our destructive, short-sighted ways, but also as a lamp to light the way to different approaches.

That’s why it is so frustrating to see his obvious skill and passion co-opted by the same mistaken, misguided mindset that brought us to this place. To delve a bit deeper, here is more from his Oscar speech:

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now, and it is the most urgent threat facing our entire species. And we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters or the big corporations, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people who will be most affected by this, for our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed. . . . Let us not take this planet for granted.”

Them’s fightin’ words, eh? Notice his emphasis on people and humanity. He could be couching his message to the audience of colleagues in the entertainment industry, which may have included one or two narcissists. And, certainly, he is right to point out that the brunt of climate change is already being borne by those who a) did little (or nothing) to cause it, and b) can least afford to do much about it.

Since people aren’t the only vulnerable beings in this situation, clearly, something is missing in his perspective.

It’s too easy to dismiss “The Revenant” as just another survival tale of man versus nature, man versus beast, man versus man. Yes, there are a lot of close-ups of Glass (DiCaprio) suffering and struggling; being mauled by a fierce mother Grizzly; nearly dying; crawling, nearly dying again, and crawling some more; hobbling; crossing icy streams; sheltering under tree roots; coaxing fires in his hands; eating big, bloody raw things; and being saved by a lone native who (generously, during a fierce storm) builds him a sweat lodge.

If it’s not only man versus nature, what is going on here?

I read one review on “The Rumpus” that brought in Transcendentalism and compared it to native spirituality, finding many similarities in their reverence for the natural world. The reviewer also says this: “Native American spirituality frequently assigns deistic status to plants and animals, if only for its reliance on metaphors.” This is simplistic, condescending, careless, and inaccurate. If anything, animism is disinclined towards metaphor, and is sourced in direct experience, not distanced by intellect or metaphor.

In general, the review makes some good points about the theme of the death of God (divinity) at the hands of hyper-materialistic capitalism. The white fur trappers are bellwethers of the encroaching industrial mindset.

It’s unfortunate that realism becomes an excuse, or a crutch, to cast a story entirely from the old mindset of hierarchy, domination and exploitation. As usual with stories like this, there are few women. True, there are one or two scenes of rough, hard-working men kicking back over ale with whores. Two women make brief appearances in aid of the overall story arc: 1) the saintly, martyred native wife of Glass; and 2) a chief’s daughter captured by French fur traders who use her as a sex slave. Glass is able to rescue the second woman, and is tortured off and on throughout the film over his inability to save his wife.

So, women are either—let’s see—whores or victims or saints. And nature is either deadly, untamably wild or a source of raw materials convertible to wealth.

Clearly, this is a story about manly men and manly deeds. About the rough and tumble of survival in a rough and tumble wild country. Only men are up to the task of taming and exploiting such a howling wilderness. Women are good for bearing children and entertaining men—with out without giving their consent.

The film reviewer on Rumpus said the film favors the nature-based spirituality of the natives, over the violence and crudity of the white interlopers. It’s a romantic notion much in favor these days, but this theme was left ambiguous at best. The reviewer did argue that the natives, who were just as violent as the white men, had a more justifiable motivation of survival and self-defense. Which was Glass’s motivation as well.

To illustrate, we watch a pack of wolves cooperatively cull and take down a bison. Nature is bloody in tooth and claw, and all that. In the next moment, the lone native (the sweat-lodge builder) has shooed them away and is feasting on the kill himself. He tosses Glass the liver. This is survival at its most fundamental. (And the ultimate Method Acting; DiCaprio is reportedly a vegan.)

By contrast, the antagonist, Fitzgerald, and the white trappers, use violence for baser motivations: for money, for power. This is the trap of capitalism. Damnable violence that gives no quarter to the sanctity of life. This is the universe of “The Revenant.” Violence for survival = good. Violence for greed or power = bad. And throw in the theme of “vengeance (or justice) is in the hands of the Creator (or God).”

Of course, we know from history and our present lives that this state of affairs, where maybe the Creator and survival won a round, is temporary. The film even includes that iconic image of the giant pile of bison skulls, in case our symbol-spotting skills have been dulled by all the violence.

The great screenwriting guru, Robert McKee, has a series called “WORKS / DOESN’T WORK,” where he reviews films based on his principles of good storytelling. He loves “The Revenant,” because it epitomizes cinematic storytelling. He praises the minimal dialogue, maximum imagery, and great control over interwoven plot types. The main plot is the “Testing Plot,” which pits willpower against giving up. The two supporting genres are Action / Adventure and Crime Story. The values of life / death and justice / injustice add dimension, but the Testing Plot keeps it from being just another revenge story.

Who am I to argue with McKee? I would dearly love, however, to find an equally successful, more feminine way in to the theme of how humans could reconcile with the natural world. How we, as the prodigal sons and daughters, could return home, and belong.

“Avatar” made some headway, but then it resorted at the end to the classic, violent battle between good guys and bad guys, with force and power-over carrying the day. It is a shame that the meta-story of our separation from the natural world, with our self-appointed role as stewards, overlords, and exploiters, infects any attempt to tell consciousness-expanding stories, either of our history or our future.

It’s probably not the right question to ask what a feminine “Revenant” would look like. I think one of the juicier questions is: What constitutes heroism now? Mining history has its appeal, but I am more interested in stories that take as their starting point right now, right here. There is such a stewpot of values, mindsets, perspectives, and consciousness simmering and boiling over lately. I pray daily that my skills will improve fast enough to be one of the new storytellers.

One thought on “How “The Revenant” falls short: storytelling our way back to belonging

  1. You already are one of those storytellers and, given your clear dedication, you will only grow stronger in word and message in the years ahead.

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