The Revenant (2015) has been called both a revenge movie and a Western by many writers. The Guardian lumped it in with Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), stating that “the western is back in town.” The screenplay is adapted from a novel called The Revenant: A Tale of Revenge, so sites like Fandango are spinning it as a story of vengeance. Revenge is admittedly a central motivation in The Revenant, since director Alejandro González Iñárritu centers the film around a fur trapper, Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio)—based on real-life person Hugh Glass—who is seeking revenge for being left for dead by his colleagues and suffering a great loss at their hands. However, in most revenge films, the protagonist ultimately moves on, having gained some satisfaction from completing the goal. In The Revenant, the stand-off between Glass and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is treated as a means to an end, and the epilogue is not what one would find in a traditional revenge movie. The focus of the film is instead Glass’ journey.
Nor does the category of Western neatly fit the movie. The film does take place in the region of present day North & South Dakota and Wyoming, so the location fits the traditional trans-Mississippi critieria. And although most Westerns take place in the post-Civil War period (after 1865) up to the closing of the American Frontie (around 1890) according to Encyclopedia Britannica, some Westerns can be set earlier or later, in the early 1800s or the 1900s. So the 1820’s setting in The Revenant fits within the general framework of a classic Western film, show, or story. However, now that our film and TV landscape includes an endless number of subgenres and variations (including, to name a few, Acid Westerns, Northwesterns, Electric Westerns, Space Westerns, Westerns about Westerns, and contemporary-setting Westerns that nonetheless put forward Western themes and tones), the question of what a Western really is becomes complicated and arguably loose.
A Western generally deals with the frontier and, according to AFI, “embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier.” Westerns show people living in more direct, intuitive justifice systems rather than respecting abstract, far-reaching systems of law. In a classic Western like the show Gunsmoke (1955), the protagonist brings his own law and order to a chaotic power system and imposes it on his fellow man for the good of all. Filmsite.org features an informational entry on Western film stating that the central plot of a Western “is the classic, simple goal of maintaining law and order on the frontier…It is normally rooted in archetypal conflict, good vs. bad, virtue vs. evil.”
Meanwhile, The Revenant’s plotline only initially involves the frontier setting of the depraved, profit-centered fur-trapping industry. The protagonist is quickly removed from this power system and, for the rest of the film, battles the elements more than anything else. Westerns are known for illustrating the harshness of nature, but in a classic Western, the hero emerges victorious over the hostile frontier. As Filmsite.org writes, the Western “often portrays the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature, in the name of civilization, or the confiscation of the territorial rights of the original inhabitants of the frontier.” But Dicaprio’s Glass does not bend the terrain to his will in the name of civilization, as the conventional Western hero does. Instead, he survives by eventually submitting to nature and learning to live in tandem with its practices, even discovering how to use the laws of nature to his benefit. By relying on the river as a mode of transport for his broken body, eating raw fish, and burrowing in dead animals for warmth, Glass reveals his smarts. But his survival does not tell the story of an enforcer of law or dominator of nature. Rather, his behaviors exhibit respect for the terrain and a conscious abandonment of “civilized” behavior.
So what type and genre of story is being told here? The film is perhaps best described as an American epic, in that it celebrates history and brings scale to the story of one man’s adventures in the expansive and unsettled West. Iñárritu, who used only natural light for the film, pays equal homage to the beauty of the mountains, forest, rivers, wildlife, and natives of the region as he does to Glass’ perseverance. The film’s reverence for the scale, aesthetics and fearsome power of nature is typically found in epics like Troy (2004) (think of the battle scenes and long sweeping shots of the beach where the soldiers of Troy are camped). The wide shots of fragile Glass in the large forests, plains, and mountains suggest a tribute to the survival ability of man—native and settler alike—in the large expanse of the American West. These shots call to mind other American epics like The Patriot (2000). Just as the bodies of the minutemen charging against the British with are treated with painterly cinematography in The Patriot, so is Glass’ combat against the severe winter conditions of the region treated in The Revenant. Both Glass and the minutemen would seem to be lost causes again the brutal winter and the skilled British army, but their stubborn mentalities simply won’t accept it.
The Revenant is ultimately a tale of survival grounded in an awe for both the majestic strength of nature and for man’s resolution to stay alive in the face of its raw power. The brutish tactics Glass uses are echoed in the behaviors of the so-called bad guy, Fitzgerald, who shares the determination to live, no matter the cost. This determination, the viewer concludes, is what makes Glass worthy of the story. Through this tale of pioneering, loss, and resolve, Iñárritu portrays the roots of Americanism—like the natural setting that formed our civilzation—as obstinate, young, beautiful, mysterious, and vast.