The Sound and Fury of Pop Nihilism

In his 1908 short story “To Build a Fire,” Jack London portrays a man trekking through the snow and ice in the Yukon. The man begins his journey with great confidence, even though he is inexperienced in such a harsh terrain. He has dressed warmly and brought food; a loyal dog follows at his heels. And London’s character remains confident, even as the temperature drops to 50 below zero and an “intangible pall” hangs over the intimidating scene. Bit by bit, though, his confidence slackens as he grasps the numbing fact that he cannot fend off the tremendous cold nor cope with the “strangeness and weirdness of it all,” that his own body will become totally frozen in an unforgiving landscape of “unbroken white.”

Much of the same mood of icy doom pervades Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, The Revenant, which is very loosely based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name. Unlike the untrained traveler in London’s story, the main character in Iñárritu’s movie is a skilled tracker and trapper much at home in the natural world. Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has been hired by a fur company to guide a large group of hunters searching for pelts in the mountainous west. The film takes place in the 1820s, a time when there was great demand for beaver fur in the United States and Europe.

Early in the film, Glass, hunting alone in a pine forest, finds he has stepped into the path of a grizzly bear out strolling with her cubs—never a good place to be. The bear attacks and Glass fights back, but is horribly injured. Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson), who leads the hunting party, decides that Glass is a goner and asks two men to stay behind to bury him when he dies. One is young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), like Hugh Glass a widely known historical figure long linked by fact and legend to the exploration of the West. The other, Jim Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), is a murderous, mealy-mouthed malcontent who tricks Bridger into fleeing the scene and leaving Glass deep in the woods with nothing but a seething rage for revenge.

And so, the plot of The Revenant—gruff frontiersman seeks to settle a score with the lowdown, yellow-bellied coward that done him wrong—is hardly new. The story of Hugh Glass has itself been told repeatedly in books and films, including 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, in which Richard Harris plays “Zack Bass,” another tight-lipped trapper who is mauled by a bear, abandoned by his partners, and left to crawl back to civilization, eating bugs and dodging wolves along the way. Like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Macabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Man in the Wilderness was one of a string of movies intended to take the romance and glamour out of the Old West while also emphasizing the depravity of man.

But of course moviemaking has changed considerably since then, owing to huge advancements in special effects. Man in the Wilderness, very much a product of its era, aims to prompt dramatic interest by making much of Zack Bass’s character, adding drawn out flashbacks illuminating his somber nature and lack of religious faith. The Revenant, however, recognizes that most moviegoers today do not hike out to the multiplex searching for compelling characters and highly original plots. Instead, they want to be dazzled. And on this score, at least, Iñárritu—who, with Mark L. Smith, also wrote the screenplay—does not disappoint. The film begins with a battle between Glass’s group and a band of Arikara Indians, their pelt-gathering competitors. It is violent, but beautifully staged, a bloody ballet complete with horses leaping and arrows flying. The arrows soar like bullets, puncturing torsos and heads with astonishing accuracy and speed.

And then there’s the brutal attack that leaves Glass half dead. In Man in the Wilderness, the scene is graphic but contrived, never quite concealing that an actor is being pummeled by a guy in a bear suit. In The Revenant, thanks to computer-generated imagery, the scene is vivid and detailed. It unfolds in real time, with the bear being heard before it is seen, snorting and growling in the foliage before springing forth. The slavering beast attacks so convincingly that you find yourself worrying for DiCaprio, who recently won a Golden Globe for this performance as well as an Academy Award nomination.

DiCaprio is very effective as Glass. He spends most of the film alone, crawling, stumbling, grunting, and grubbing over the snowy landscape in an oversized coat of bristling fur. If the Academy decides to salute the actor most willing to accept a dare, DiCaprio will almost certainly take home an Oscar. There are scenes involving raw fish—not of the sushi variety—and the use of a fresh horse carcass for shelter.

And that’s not all. Glass, starving, comes across a Pawnee Indian eating the guts of a buffalo, freshly killed. The Indian is generous, tossing Glass what appears to be a very large liver. The men eat with gusto, their mouths smeared with blood—momentarily savoring their spot atop the food chain. In fact, by the time we watch Glass and his new friend enjoying buffalo tartare, the movie’s message to the viewer is clear: Jack London was right. It’s eat-or-be-eaten out there. The weak perish and the strong survive (but only if they’re lucky). Of course the natural world can be majestic in its beauty—The Revenant was filmed in the Canadian Rockies and Tierra del Fuego, among other places—but it is always unrelenting and cruel. It is red in tooth and claw as Tennyson said.

Glass’s friend has something in common with him. His family having been killed by the Sioux, the Pawnee observes solemnly that “revenge belongs to God.” He is sincere, but the remark—which also appears as the film’s epigraph—is clearly intended to be ironic. The Revenant repeatedly suggests that, if there is a God, he is certainly indifferent to a human being’s suffering. He will not punish Glass’s enemies. Christianity is represented in the film by the half-demented Fitzgerald, who also steals, kills, and issues racist slurs. He mutters his prayers and likes to retell the story of how his dear old Pappy had a religious revelation, seeing God in the form of a squirrel he then shot and devoured. Fitzgerald clings bitterly to his Bible and his guns.

Glass thinks frequently of his own missing family, his wife and son. His late wife, a Pawnee, appears in his dreams dressed in white, whispering words of wisdom. But these sequences have a futile, mournful air. In one dream scene, Glass holds his son before a ruined church. The music is ominous. The church stands in a surreal landscape of barren trees, and its bell tolls soundlessly against a stark grey sky. Glass also encounters, while awake, a nightmarish scene: a dead man, hung from a tree. A band of unsavory French trappers, the film reveals, have come upon a lone Pawnee Indian and killed him for sport, appending a sign to his body that reads “on est tous sauvages.” We are all savages. This should be the film’s epigraph, since apparently it’s the Big Insight The Revenant aims to convey.

The earlier movie Man in the Wilderness also gestured toward cosmic pessimism, but it only went so far. Warner Brothers sensed that young moviegoers were in a debunking mood in 1971. They didn’t want John Wayne. They wanted explicitness and grit: even genre films, the studio assumed, should have a certain countercultural air. Thus Richard Harris, with his fringed jacket and shoulder-length hair, looks like he’d be more comfortable singing “MacArthur Park” than hunting for beaver pelts. He’s shown to mellow as time goes on, so the overall effect becomes less like Jack London and more like other 1970s fare such as  Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a New Age bestseller-turned-movie. Harris’ character eventually becomes one with nature, his desire for revenge overcome. He ends up stroking a cute white rabbit as he sits reflectively by a crackling campfire.

Suffice it to say that The Revenant ends differently, reflecting the pop nihilism of the day. By the time final scenes arrive, the more DiCaprio and Hardy look like characters from the Walking Dead: bloody, gaunt, soulless. And the more predictable it all seems. In the end The Revenant is far more interesting for its visuals than anything it attempts to say.