‘The Revenant’ Gives Harrowing, Hard-to-Watch Films a Bad Name – And Here’s Why That Matters

The membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not known for championing difficult or disturbing works of art, but two years ago, the Oscar-granting organization bucked tradition and bestowed its Best Picture award on a film most often — and most accurately — described as “harrowing.”

Set in the antebellum South, 12 Years a Slave — a devastating adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name — follows a free black man from New York who endures unspeakable cruelty after being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Perhaps because he is not American, director Steve McQueen is able to strip out the layers of history-textbook cliché that have protected so many of us from fully absorbing the horrors of slavery. And though the film concludes with a triumph of sorts, what persists once the viewer has left the theater isn’t the ending – it’s the series of painful images amassed on the road to that resolution.

You could say the same thing about the most recent movie by the biggest winner at last year’s Academy Awards, Alejandro González Iñárritu, although its tormented 19th-century protagonist is a fur trapper traversing the iciest corners of the US who struggles as much with nature as with any human being. The Revenant has already won Best Film at the BAFTAs and Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes, making it perhaps the safest bet among the three films that have any real chance of taking this year’s Best Picture Oscar. (The other two are Spotlight and The Big Short.)

There are few similarities between McQueen’s and Iñárritu’s modes of storytelling, but 12 Years a Slave and The Revenant share a notable refusal to censor the violence and human suffering they depict — not for the sake of Academy members and not for the genteel audiences that heed those voters’ endorsements. At least as far as major awards are concerned, these films are among the most celebrated examples of a recent trend that favors graphic, unflinching, and often ethically complicated or openly outraged portrayals of dark and bloody moments in Western history (others include 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker and recent nominees Django Unchained, There Will Be Blood, Inglourious Basterds, and Zero Dark Thirty) over sentimental and/or moralistic treatments of everything from racism (2005 winner Crash) to the Vietnam War (1994 winner Forrest Gump) to the Holocaust (1993 winner Schindler’s List and – egregiously – 1998 nominee Life Is Beautiful).

12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

Like the works that constituted the most important revolution in the history of American film — the New Hollywood movement that buried the studio system and made Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Arthur Penn into auteurist icons — these Hollywood productions owe a substantial debt to international and art-house cinema.

In particular, the experience of watching these awards-friendly movies suggests a connection to the predominantly European cinematic subgenre Oxford professor Nikolaj Lübecker defines in his 2015 book The Feel-Bad Film. (It’s worth mentioning that neither McQueen nor Iñárritu began his career in Hollywood; the former is English, while the latter is Mexican. Both directors started out making high-concept, relatively low-budget films in their home countries.) Like many recent Hollywood darlings, the feel-bad films”of such directors as Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, and Catherine Breillat can be violent, gory, depressing, sexually explicit, disgusting, or just purposefully boring. And like the The Revenant, the “assaultive” subset of these movies “work from the hypothesis that the best — the most efficient — way to communicate a specific message is to go through the body of the spectator to her intellect.”

But what truly defines “the feel-bad experience,” according to Lübecker, is a film that “produces a spectatorial desire, but then blocks its satisfaction; it creates, and then deadlocks, our desire for catharsis” [emphasis the author’s]. And just as the French New Wave-inflected sexual subtext of Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde had to be toned down for American audiences, Hollywood’s feel-bad-lite films tend to make more concessions to catharsis than their European cousins.

Still, this trend in Oscar bait has been a largely positive development, yielding not just superior films, but also more (emotionally if not literally) authentic reflections on historical atrocities, our unjust present, and the essential connections between them. But even the most welcome trend produces its share of duds, and The Revenant is – as plenty but by no means the majority of critics have already noted – one of them. It is separated from 12 Years a Slave and a raft of other excellent, Academy-approved films that test viewers’ endurance by a gulf of storytelling, meaning, and sheer necessity too wide to ignore.

So, how did The Revenant fool so many of us into believing it was a great film? Unless Iñárritu is secretly a marketing genius masquerading as an artist, my guess is that its acclaim can be attributed to a combination of reputation (not just the director’s but also that of his cast) and dumb luck. For months leading up to its premiere, the trades printed story after story about what a debacle the production had become. The project went $40 million over budget, shot for roughly half a year longer than originally planned, and was best known before its release as a grueling, dangerous slog for cast and crew alike. Its producers – who were, no surprise, eventually banned from the set – probably regarded its eventual completion as a victory in itself.

From there, Iñárritu’s months of bad press were easily spun to get his name mentioned in the same breath as auteurs like Coppola, Herzog, and Malick, whose productions have also been euphemistically termed “troubled.” “A film like this,” Iñárritu told the Guardian in January, “is a homage to the original cinema tradition, where the directors went to the places, and you risked challenges. I passionately believe that that should be an example of how film should be committed.” More than anything else, his 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman expressed the director’s belief in his own role as one of the 21st century’s few remaining defenders of cinema as art. He reiterated that view in a New York Times profile that coincided with The Revenant’s Christmas release: “Too many [movies] today are like the products of fast-food chains, he said, ordered up by corporations that prize predictability and sameness over all else.”

After it had survived a weird and ridiculous, viral “bear rape” rumor, the film found its earliest champions in the kind of critics most likely to eat up its director’s brand of bluster: chest-pounding chauvinists who praised it as an endurance test unfit for “movie pussies” or… literally any woman? Even if we laughed at their language, something about the way they positioned The Revenant as a measure of our cinephilic mettle penetrated our derision. (I’ll admit that, as a sanctimonious vessel for two X chromosomes with a soft spot for films that are difficult to stomach, I readily accepted the dare implicit in these idiotic utterances.)

The Revenant
The Revenant

It’s no coincidence that none of this has anything to do with the story itself, which takes Iñárritu over two and a half hours to tell but can be summarized in a couple of sentences: A bear attack leaves a fur trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass) critically injured and dependent on the care of an opportunistic member of his party (Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald) who kills Glass’ son (Forrest Goodluck) and buries Glass alive. But Glass rises from the damn-near-dead, undertakes a painstaking healing process – both physical and spiritual – in a place where food and shelter are exceedingly difficult to come by, and seeks revenge on behalf of his murdered offspring.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with a movie – of any length – that is light on plot, as long as whatever else is going on in the film justifies its existence. For many critics, presumably along with plenty of the millions of moviegoers who have made The Revenant a bona fide global blockbuster, DiCaprio and Hardy’s performances and Emmanuel Lubezki’s masterful cinematography and the combination revenge narrative/Christian allegory (more on that soon) were enough to merit 156 minutes of mauling and crawling and growling both human and animal. Or maybe they were just secretly longing for a film that fetishized, rather than thinking too hard about, pain.

But no small number of smart voices located the emptiness at the center of Iñárritu’s script, highlighting its failure to create a complex moral universe out of the clash it depicts between white men, indigenous peoples, and the natural world – and inability to give the film the spiritual resonance it so conspicuously claims. Comparing the film to Malick’s The New World, Variety’s Justin Chang wrote,

The title of The Revenant aims to give this renascent avenger [Glass] a spiritual dimension, but in attempting to steer his dark, fatalistic vision toward something genuinely contemplative and cathartic, Iñárritu has managed to appropriate the beauty of Malick’s filmmaking but none of its sublimity — another word for which might be humility.

In her insightful review, Times critic Manohla Dargis named the filmmaker’s signature style – “Mr. Iñárritu isn’t content to merely seduce you with ecstatic beauty and annihilating terror; he wants to blow your mind, to amp up your art-house experience with blockbusterlike awesomeness” – and isolated what makes it so insufficient in telling a story like The Revenant’s:

But Mr. Iñárritu blows it when he moves from the material to the mystical and tries to elevate an ugly story into a spiritual one, with repeated images of a spiral and even a flash of homespun magical realism. Worse, he makes Glass not just a helpless witness to a murder that’s a stand-in for the genocide of the Indians, but also a proxy victim of that catastrophe.

To understand why The Revenant’s spiritual ambitions – which make up its entire thematic core, as well as its resolution – fall so flat, it seems useful to return to the feel-bad films and consider what they accomplish while Iñárritu is settling for cinematic backflips. Feel-bad films, Professor Lübecker explains, trigger our sense of “unpleasure” in a way that specifically encourages us, after the credits have rolled, to keep dissecting the real, complicated political and ethical dilemmas they demonstrate to us. Lars von Trier’s Dogville, which the author considers at length, “is a film inviting us to think the destructive drives in human subjectivity, not at a remove, but rather – if the spectatorial manipulation works – from the inside. Among other things, it prompts us to consider how our desire for catharsis can be exploited for anti-democratic purposes.”

Dogville
Dogville

Like The Revenant, Dogville is a revenge narrative. In fact, both films slowly, agonizingly build up to a climax in which a protagonist who has been put through trying ordeal after trying ordeal is poised to extract the vengeance we are led to believe they deserve, only to raise the question of whether revenge was a desirable outcome in the first place. But whereas Von Trier shows us the horrors of Old Testament-style retribution, plays David Bowie’s “Young Americans” over a slideshow of photographs that document real-life injustice, and then leaves us to sit with our discomfort over having a base and naive desire for violence satisfied, Iñárritu spoon-feeds us the moral of the story. “Revenge is in the creator’s hands, not man’s,” says a kind Pawnee who aids Glass in his quest, and those words reverberate as the fur trapper trudges toward enlightenment, deciding in the film’s quick final sequence to leave his antagonist John Fitzgerald’s fate to God – who, of course, immediately has him float down the river to his death, at the hands of another indigenous character. And in case there was still any doubt, Iñárritu confirms that this was the right decision by reuniting Glass with his serene, murdered wife on what can only be a spiritual plane.

It’s an ending that has especially delighted audiences that don’t normally embrace onscreen gore, but for whom the New Testament is the last word on morality. “Indeed, since seeking revenge is contrary to Christian teaching, we correctly leave the final judgment to God,” wrote a Catholic News Service critic. And in a post titled “Why I Loved The Revenant on the blog Rockin’ God’s House, author Kevin Ott explained,

The film, almost quoting Scripture verbatim, also agrees — in a belated revelation in the hurting heart of Hugh Glass — with the Scripture’s admonition in Romans 12:19 about not taking justice into our own hands: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (New International Version).

However, when someone sincerely, passionately, and humbly believes that God will someday make all things right and thoroughly prosecute and punish every injustice ever committed that no human power could prevent or recompense, it has the opposite effect.

The person becomes less violent and less obsessed with revenge.

The Revenant, unlike Dogville, puts enough space between good and evil for viewers to leave the theater secure in the knowledge that they’ve aligned themselves with the former. Lübecker points out what is so deadening about this variety of simplistic but harrowing film in a brief discussion of Saving Private Ryan: “It does moves us, but it does not make us think about our moral frameworks; it mesmerizes and pacifies.” Iñárritu only permits one conclusion – and, as Dargis implies, it’s a conclusion whose mesmeric and pacifying qualities are at odds with the complexity of the world The Revenant depicts, one that was so cruel to the indigenous people who facilitate Glass’ journey to self-actualization that it’s actually reprehensible to imply that it was governed by any sort of interventionist deity.

The feel-bad film as Professor Lübecker defines it may never become a staple of mainstream American cinema, but at such a confused, morally polarized time in our history, it’s encouraging to see elements of those politically resonant movies make their way into the kinds of movies we nominate for Oscars. Their productive ambiguity is present in the distance Kathryn Bigelow puts between the stories she tells and the way she feels about those stories; it’s even there in Quentin Tarantino’s bloody spectacles, which push historically revisionist catharsis to such an extreme that we’re forced to question why old wounds remain so raw.

12 Years a Slave, I think, is secretly an almost-full-fledged feel-bad film. Its happy ending, followed by some depressing text that reveals Solomon Northup never got the justice he sought, is so short and takes up so little of its runtime that we’re still left agonizing over all the ethical questions McQueen raises. (Are slaves responsible for their actions? Is there such a thing as a good slave owner? What are the moral responsibilities of white people living in a society that oppresses black people?)

The Revenant is something very different. Though it may be the product of a refreshing trend towards authenticity in Hollywood, it devalues that trend by pretending that painting a purely visual portrait of human suffering and then sprinkling it with spiritual platitudes is just as good as inspiring independent thought. Ultimately, The Revenant suggests no deeper or more nuanced truths than a medieval morality play. It’s a feel-good film that feels horrible to watch, one that justifies every complaint you’ve ever head about gratuitous onscreen violence and congratulates you for enduring it with a simple conclusion that – depending on your belief system, formal or otherwise – will make you either sigh with relief or sleepwalk out of the theater wondering, “Is that it?” Unfortunately, it is.