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The Revenant is many things. Beautiful, majestic, brutal. But it’s also a hollow bore. I found myself exiting the film and asking: “what is the point of the story I just watched?” I think it’s a fair question, especially for a big awards frontrunner. But the only answer I get is: revenge and the brutality of nature. But that’s the plot, that’s what is happening. What is The Revenant saying when all is said and done? What is it trying to communicate to audiences?

The closest I can find is the brutal nature of masculinity. Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald makes numerous remarks on boys and men and where the difference between them lies. But to really make that point you need a contrast. And what is the best thing to contrast with masculinity: femininity. So lets ask the pertinent question: how are women portrayed within the film? The reality of the film would have you believe there are next to no women on the frontier, despite the fact that the two most famous frontiersman in American history had been partially guided by a woman.

There are exactly two women portrayed in the film: Hugh Glass’s wife (she doesn’t get a name, nor does she do anything cause she’s dead) and Powaqa, the daughter of a Native American Chief (I can only assume he’s the Chief, one way or another he is the leader) who has been kidnapped. Her father spends the narrative of the film searching for Powaqa, even trading with the very men who have kidnapped her. The search for his daughter is fruitless if he can’t even find her when she’s right under his nose.

So what happens to Powaqa? Well she’s saved of course. But not by her father, but by native white man Hugh Glass. Glass encounters the traders who have kidnapped Powaqa and saves her from them (notably while she is being raped). He tells her he will steal a horse so they can escape, but he’s spotted, things get crazy, yet they manage to get away regardless.

But here’s the somewhat confusing bit, due in part to Innarritu’s evidential obsession with long-takes: it’s not made clear whether Glass escapes with Powaqa or if they are separated in the melee. The next time we see Powaqa she is washing up at the side of a river. She looks up and we see confusion in her eyes. Next we see Hugh Glass riding alone on a horse. So my question, again: did they escape together or were they separated?

Each answer effects the outcome of the story, so it’s important know. The Revenant’s one live female character is just a plot point, and to have that plot point so muddled on top of that is frustrating. Powaqa and her father don’t come back into the story until Glass confronts Fitzgerald for murdering his son, whereupon Glass forgoes killing Fitzpatrick (who has already been partially scalped by Natives) and hands him over to Powaqa’s father, who of course kills Fitzpatrick and spares Glass. But why?

Powaqa and her father have no stakes in the story of Hugh Glass, his survival nor his revenge. But if Glass abandoned her in the wilderness, why do they show him mercy in those last moments? You might say, “well of course, it’s not made clear. It’s more likely that Glass and Powaqa were separated in that skirmish, so she needn’t hold any grudge.” Fair enough, I raised that point myself, but then why those juxtaposed images of Powaqa and Glass afterwards. Why is Innarritu not making it perfectly clear when the two separated? Is it simply because he thinks long-take shots are just that cool?

Forgive me for this tangent, but as beautiful as the cinematography is in The Revenant, it must be noted that the filmmakers seem to forget a vital aspect of the craft: each frame, each shot, is meant to convey information. That is the foremost responsibility of a film’s cinematography, not merely being gorgeous. Without information onscreen we have no story, simply a series of pretty pictures. So because of Innarritu’s fixation on complicated, sweeping long-takes we have an abundance of information being confused because it is not conveyed properly.

Now let’s go back to the beginning and ask: what is the point of the story? It’s about a man being abandoned in the wilderness and seeking revenge for the murder of his son. If that’s really all that it is about then why the subplot of Powaqa and her father? There has to be a reason for it. It could be as innocuous as someone saying “this is the frontier, we need to see Native Americans.” It really could be that simple, but I don’t want to believe that. If Glass and Powaqa were separated why does he show no regret? Why does her survival have any connection to the story? Why are there no complicated emotions between a man and a woman after he saves her and subsequently (one way or another) leaves her for dead?

I’m not being facetious, I’m honestly asking. Maybe I’m just not seeing it, maybe I really am not able to connect the dots. But if the ending of the film can only offer up “revenge is in the hands of the Creator” why did I need to sit through 3 hours of nature survival to understand that? It’s the simplest of revenge story morals. If the entire point of the story is that revenge is out of your control why do we spend 3/4 of the running time simply watching Glass survive. He doesn’t fixate on his revenge, in fact his revenge and hatred don’t become clear until he get’s back to his outpost, barely 30 minutes before the film is over. The film is fixated purely on survival… until it remembers that it has a plot to get back to.

And yet, maybe I’ve answered my own question: the one woman who has any involvement with The Revenant is completely ignored because she makes literally no impact. Powaqa is nothing but a muddled plot-point. And that’s maybe the saddest truth of all within The Revenant: that at nearly 3 hours long, it has no time to figure out what to do with the one woman in it’s story.

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Andrew Walsh

Andrew Walsh is an independent filmmaker and freelance writer based in LA. He co-directed his first feature in high school, is an avid juggler, and is a descendant of director Raoul Walsh. One of those might not be true.

Follow him on Twitter if that's your deal @AndrewKWalsh

22 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Just watched the movie. Powaqa runs in the opposite direction – down an embankment – away from the French camp after taking revenge on her rapist. You see the trouserless man collapsing with blood running down his leg as she runs off and the focus switches back to Glass and his escape from the French.

  • It’s obvious Glass released the horses as a distraction to allow the woman to flee. I find it surprising that just because there is a lack of women in the movie, you believe the main theme of the movie involves the contrast between man and woman.

    • HaHaHa!…don’t know about you but, there’s no way I could sit thru that shit again. Damn, I’m tired of everything involved in this film. GLOOM!

  • I think it all has to do with what the word Revenant means. The wife, Glass, and Powaqa — all returned. The wife stays in his dreams thru the movie. Glass and Powaqa both should have died but survived and returned. I think it’s that simple. It’s the story of their return when they should have died.

  • I really agree with your analysis!
    And I also think the subplot & characters were ignored and that’s a great loss.

  • I think you might be reading into this a little too much. I was slightly confused by the plot line with Powaqa but then realised it was intertwined as to why Glass etc..were being pursued and is essentially about a tale of survival ( by both her & Glass). Every individual interprets a film differently… Which is the beauty of it.. the information is there.. You just need to see it. Not really an issue with the inclusion ( or not) of a female in the film or if they’re an integral part of the plot. Enjoy the film for what it is ..showing the true strength of humanity …, determination, passion & those protecting & looking after others. Not sure how I happened upon this page..

  • An ongoing theme of the movie is what makes a man. Toughness, determination, etc, sure, but fatherhood is sooo important. Glass and the Arikara chief are the only fathers in the movie, and their tenderness in that role far surpasses their brutality.
    That’s why the Powaqa story.

  • To see what happened to powaqa you would have to watch the scene 10 times in alow motion! Too comfusing for an average viewer!

  • What I found most interesting was that The historical facts were changed for political correctness. Hugh Glass came back from the dead ( practically) because his rifle was stolen. The rifle was a very special one and worth a couple years salary.

  • If powaqa was never kidnapped Leonardo and his men would have had nothing to run from. The threat of the native Americans hunting them for the cheifs daughter is why Leo ran into terrible experiences throughout the movie. She was a vital role in the film.

  • The movie is not just about the brutality of nature– it’s about the beauty of nature and the i interconnectedness of all living things. Glass is a guide — he has some of the knowledge of the land that the native Americans have–and he is the translator for us of this knowledge. A very very deep connection to nature and living things is at the heart of the movie. What is it like to live close to the land–it is harsh but there is also great beauty. You get to see elk crossing the river. You see how the moon looks in the frozen sky. His emotional connections are more with the natives than the whites who are portrayed as exploiters. The native man who takes care of him strengthens the connections to the earth. The rescue of powaqua is a thank you and brings the loss of his wife and child full circle in a way. The natives treatment of him at the end is one of respect but it’s a wary respect. It’s a complex emotion. It a simple one. I love this movie for all of these reasons.

  • The movie is not just about the brutality of nature– it’s about the beauty of nature and the i interconnectedness of all living things. Glass is a guide — he has some of the knowledge of the land that the native Americans have–and he is the translator for us of this knowledge. A very very deep connection to nature and living things is at the heart of the movie. What is it like to live close to the land–it is harsh but there is also great beauty. You get to see elk crossing the river. You see how the moon looks in the frozen sky. His emotional connections are more with the natives than the whites who are portrayed as exploiters. The native man who takes care of him strengthens the connections to the earth. The rescue of powaqua is a thank you and brings the loss of his wife and child full circle in a way. The natives treatment of him at the end is one of respect but it’s a wary respect. It’s a complex emotion. It a simple one. I love this movie for all of these reasons.

  • Addendum
    There are native women talking about the impact of the rape scene in the movie. And the pain of seeing native people killed and bludgeoned. Look for these posts on line they add a whole other dimension

  • In understanding the character of Powaqa, you must understand that this is her home. She and glass are separated after she is freed in the melee. She is not abandoned or ignored. She is free in her own environment. She is very significant in that at the end with unspoken words, Glass is left unmolested to continue his life. This is due to the knowledge that he has helped her. The relationships between native people and frontiersmen was ever changing and complex. The muddled atmosphere would make sense in the vast wilderness. Things are not always clear.

  • You are a fucking idiot dude. You are a sorry excuse for a film maker, I never want to see your films if you can’t even find the morals and lessons of the story. You suck!!!!!

  • Your entire summary and all your conclusions are bs. The bear was female. It was a metaphorical simulation of how all women are in control of every situation and only they get to choose when to allow hollow brained males to Think they are being released for certain death into a dreamlike state where they hug trees and shack up with Native Americans who can build a fire in gale-like winds. And you call yourself a filmmaker. I say Ha! to you madam.

  • This is one of the BEST films I’ve seen that avidly depicts the strength of mans endeavor to survive no matter what. It makes no difference the motivation that drives it; whether it’s right or wrong; revenge, or finding) a loved one. I believe THIS is the storyline of the movie. It’s more than how vicious men can be, or, how brutal nature can be, but of the sheer will of the human heart and spirit to survive both.

  • Are you even aware that it is a movie based on a true story (granted not without some creative license taken)? Is it really necessary to meet some feminist requirement in order to retell the amazing struggle an survival of Glass’ life? Although I am a woman, I myself do not require that history be rewritten so as not to offend my feminist sensibilities. If I want fiction, I watch a fictional movie. But in response to your honest questions and inability to see what was in the film or as you say connect the dots… It’s a Military Outpost and the military was not co-ed back then. It accurately depicts the roles of women in that particular environment in that era. Obviously, there were women living and working on the frontier but in a Military Outpost the only females that stepped foot on posts filled with rough and dangerous trappers and soldiers were prostitutes and captives. Also, given that this was a movie based on the true story of Glass, not Powaqa who’s story is included to explain why the Ree were hunting the men throughout the movie, her depiction was reasonable and fair. Also, her rape while despicable was an unfortunate fact of life for captives of any color then as it is now. Men don’t kidnap women because they need a fourth to play Charades. Personally, as a woman I took satisfaction in the justice she exacted on her rapist. But I digress. In the movie, it is clearly shown that while Glass is getting the horse and calling for her to come, Powaqa instead cuts her rapist and flees in the opposite direction. Glass frees the horses and shoots at the trappers as she makes her escape and then flees the other way as they begin shooting back. Frankly I’m surprised that the reason for this confuses you. Would you run to a strange white man whose motives you don’t know after days (possibly weeks) of being beaten and raped by a group of strange white men? Glass accepts her choice, covers her escape, and then makes his own. Additionally, had he tried to ride after her to force her to go with him, blatantly ignoring the fact she did not want to go with him, he would have been riding straight into the gunfire from the French trappers and likely would have been killed. She was part of a tribe that was native to the area and knew how to survive, unlike the majority of us who buy our food at the grocery store, clothes at department stores, and live in homes we paid others to build for us. There are no complicated emotions between a man and a woman after the escape because the French trappers wouldn’t hold their fire so she could thank him and shake his hand before running for safety and because life was not a romance novel back then anymore than it is today. When she washes the blood from her hands in the river she does not look up with confusion in her eyes, rather she is fearfully looking back to see if anyone is coming to recapture her. As for what the movie is trying to say, it seems rather cut and dry… Hugh Glass was a doggedly-determined astoundingly resilient frontiersman who believed that so long as you are able to draw breath you keep fighting and survived overwhelming adversities because of it. It is not a statement about women’s roles and representation, or the lack of it, on the frontier or in movies. It’s a story of the survival of Hugh Glass. Watch the movie for the actual story it’s telling, rather than trying to insert themes that have nothing to do with it or imagine slights against my sex, and you might enjoy it. You might not. But at least if you’re going to dislike it do so for a legitimate reason and not because you don’t think they met the female actors quota or because they didn’t change the focus of the story to meet politically correct equal male/female representation and screen time. As a woman, I find it insulting when people scream feminist propaganda that is actually a cry for special treatment. If it were a story about Powaqa’s life and they only focused on the strange white man who she met for 10 seconds as he helped her escape, then I would bitch up a storm. However, the fact that they had the gall to make a movie about a man’s life and did not elaborate and expand on women’s issues on the old frontier, or give a Native American woman he helped a bigger role and impact in his life than she might’ve had, does not have me weeping and it shouldn’t send you into hysterics either. Oh, btw, he didn’t even have a Pawnee wife or son in real life. He was left for dead by Fitzgerald but he pursued him in revenge for that horrendous crime and to get back the gun Fitzgerald stole from him. So, lighten up, breathe easy, and be happy they threw women in at all. 😜

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