Dancing with Ghosts

(This article first appeared at https://medium.com/@OpenRoadMedia/dancing-with-ghosts-2a94eba3a17d#.3pb8bkqlv)

As far as revenge and survival porn go, Revenant is brilliant. The savagery of both nature and man are eloquently, if unrelentingly, presented. Were it not for the ten minutes or so devoted to a Pawnee who turns over his desire for retribution to his Higher Power and our hero’s collateral liberation of a kidnap/rape victim while avenging the Pawnee’s murder, there would be no relief from constant amoral brutality writ large in bold gorgeous color.

Over the top? Not really. Take it from me – I’ve spent years researching Native American culture and relations with the United States in the early 19th century. Inarittu’s vision is realistic. From bears to wolf packs to raging waters to the frigid grip of snow and ice, frontier life just didn’t give a guy a break. Throw in the greed of men, territorial war, and general racist contempt, you’ve got nonstop blood and guts. But there are two elements that strike at the heart of me in watching Revenant’s parade of violence.

One is the vast, incredible bounty of its locale, apparently Montana and South Dakota. You get a sense of the enormity of the American wilderness, the endless landscape of opportunity, huge, begging for exploitation. In a place so rich with resource, so immense, it seems natural that 19th century European minds – who saw ownership as a matter of building towns, cultivating land, erecting fences and walls, and wide open space as up for grabs – would think: “Why are these pesky Natives so bothered by our trapping and fort building? There’s so much to go around! More over, bud, there’s lots more bison, beaver, and deer over there a piece.” Business as usual during an era that saw the Indian Removal Act forcibly expel 100,000 souls from land their ancestors inhabited for thousands of years and the horrific genocide known as the Trail of Tears. Cue more blood and guts.

The other is that the only sweet, peaceful moments of the film are given to a Native American ghost, the tenderly beckoning, softly-speaking-of-wisdom dead wife of our hero. There are indications of pure love between the hero and his soon-to-be dead son, both in life and after, but these are expressed in extremis and their intent feels different than that gentle hovering ghost breathing love and smiles. She always appears to the hero when he is at his worst, about to give up, and she sustains him.

So I pondered what the director is doing besides giving us a sacred victim and savage invader. It hit me like a snowy avalanche hurtling down from some Black Hills peak: Inarittu is talking out of both sides of his mouth. From one side, he is H. Rap Brown*: violence is as American as cherry pie. Inarutti reminds us the golden American myth of the brave pioneer conquering the west, that myth we so revere as knit into our character, is painted with oceans of blood and littered with body parts. Violence is us and we are it. Not exactly a new idea. But from the other side? What was the meaning of that ghost wife? What else but that our myths, hovering over us, shielding us, ever beckoning, are what keep us going, are the very vital key to our survival, and we would be dead, defeated, gone without them.

A noteworthy message as far as it went. But it could have gone much farther. Inarutti covered the settler, trader, pioneer side pretty well but kept, as always film seems to do, the Native American’s at arm’s length. Here we had the Euro-American way West in all its glory of heroic survival and brutality. But what of the Native American’s side? Did no mythic future lay ahead for that murdered Pawnee beyond defeat and degradation? Who were the ghosts that appeared to him as he gasped his last? What did they whisper?


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