Leonardo DiCaprio and the misnaming of ‘The Revenant’

Well, The Revenant is actually very good indeed. You probably already know this; regular readers of this blog will know that in matters cinematic, I am usually a late adopter and an opportunist; essentially, I usually wait to watch new film releases until a time and place where watching a movie is really the only thing that I can do, which is why so many of the films I watch are on small aeroplane screens as I travel. I may not get the full cinema experience, but the films certainly get my full attention – and they almost invariably prompt me to see some aspect of the world and/or life from a different perspective.

Anyway, The Revenant is excellent. It is an example of full-on sensory overload, deeply shocking in places, and compelling viewing that is extremely uncomfortable in places. Leonardo DiCaprio deserved his many awards – his pain was almost palpable. The scenery was breathtaking. You resurface at the end of the film feeling as though you have had an emotional beating in a harsh and unforgiving place at a difficult period of American history (which is part of the history of so many of us, given that the US is a country of migrants).

A great film does not just relate a story: it reaches into our souls and shows us that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. It links past with present, it crosses national boundaries, and it challenges us to look ahead even as we look back. Films don’t have to be great epics in order to do this, but they do need to be well-crafted (hence the importance of the art of the film-makers and actors), so that the messages they contain can strike straight into our understandings. Great films rarely have a single message; it is often in the complexity (and sometimes contradictions) of their communication that they achieve greatness. Their ability to be able to touch and change our understanding, however, is a fundamental part of their greatness.

When I write about films, it is usually not to review them as works of art, but rather to explore and expand on one or more of the messages or insights that the films have given me, in order to share them – the core purpose of writing a blog, of course. And one of the sudden and powerful insights I had when watching The Revenant was an understanding of why so many people in the US feel it is their right to carry guns, and what this suggests to us about what we can do to seek to eliminate gun violence – or any violence – in the future. It didn’t make me think it was ok to carry guns, but it did make me understand it, very forcefully, at a deeper level than I have ever done before.

In one scene, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is asked if he did in fact kill an officer. His response: ‘I just killed the man who was trying to kill my boy’. By that stage in the film we are so bought into his character that we absorb his point of view entirely – and even though we know it is wrong to kill, we understand – really understand, in a way that might shock us – why he did it, and the primal power of family love, and the need to protect those we love, and, perhaps, love itself. If carrying a gun makes this more possible – as clearly, many millions of Americans believe it does – then why should we stand in their way?

To come to this conclusion, however, would be to miss the opportunity to use this understanding – deeply rooted in the memories of fighting for survival in a time of history which The Revenant does not attempt to sanitise – to move forward in our understandings and our actions, to help make the world a better place than it was in the fur-trapping, frontier-land, pioneer era of American history. For one thing is absolutely without question – we cannot change the past. We can only use our understandings of the past to help change our present and our future, and if we do not at least try to move on from the past, by doing things differently, then we are not – to my mind, at least – doing what we could be doing as human beings to advance and to move us all forward to a higher plane of existence, on which we care as much for others as we do for ourselves, and where we actively seek to contribute to making the world a better place. When we understand more about human history, and the motives and experiences of our forebears, we can build on this understanding to create new and powerful solutions for the future.

The Revenant is not really about a man coming back, as its French-derived title suggests. It is about a man moving forward in life, by clinging on to it – at times literally – with his fingernails. It teaches us about the past and in so doing, points us to the future. When you watch it again, watch it with this in mind.

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