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.