By Madison Friend
I want to take issue with the fact that the only time women appear in Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant is in reverie or as the victim of a dispassionate rape.
It would be easy, after all, to complain that the two women we are introduced to barely speak or act; it would be even easier to make the case that they exist only as foils to the strong male characters we’re supposed to identify with as universal.
But those criticisms would be silly. Bands of motley fur trappers from the 1820s rarely had room – or, more importantly, a need – for women among them. This particular hunting party, its ranks decimated in the opening scene by a vengeful group of Native Americans, finds itself locked in an increasingly desperate (and overtly masculine) battle with the land it lives off, subject to the whims of a wilderness less friendly by the minute as winter fast approaches.
After the initial attack, Captain Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) asks Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio) to guide the surviving members of their party to relative safety at an outpost some hundreds of miles away. When Glass is mauled by a bear, Henry leaves him to die in the care of his devoted but confused son Hawk (Forest Goodluck), the well-meaning but too-young Bridger (Will Poulter), and the opportunist, vindictive Fitzgerald (a near-unrecognizable Tom Hardy). He offers the men extra pay if they stay with Glass until he dies and give him a proper burial.
Fitzgerald has his own (hardly inscrutable) plans to kill Hawk, leave Glass, and bully Bridger into keeping his mouth shut. It isn’t until nearly 40 minutes into the film, then, when Glass rises from a shallow grave and wraps himself in the pelt of the bear he defeated, that its central conflict sharpens into focus. This is a movie about two men and revenge.
To that end, it doesn’t offer up a single fully-formed female character. All Iñárritu has to give us are shadow-women, ephemeral notions of beauty that stare wistfully through gauzy lenses forward through the years or sit proudly atop horses as if they don’t belong to their father. Grace Dove Syme, who makes the most of the few meta-moments she has on screen as the ghostly object of her surviving husband’s desire, is credited simply as “Wife of Hugh Glass.” What clearer indication could there be that women do not belong?
And, okay, so they don’t. It’s no surprise that an Oscar-season tentpole like this, for all the freshness of its cinematography, would traffic in tried-and-true masculine tropes proven to generate ticket sales (if only for their almost-painful familiarity – no one at the box office has to wonder if they’ll like The Revenant, because the struggle it boils down to is a deceptively simple one we’ve seen depicted on screen many times before). To include female characters just for the sake of them being there would have been awkward and forced. They make sense here as mere figments of their men’s imaginations.
The question then becomes not whether women belong in this film, but why there is no “female” equivalent to this film, no movie where women comprise the overwhelming bulk of the cast and their men feature chiefly (read: only) as the subjects of visions and dreams or the object of a hunt.
The Revenant is powerful, visceral, breathtaking, savage, and beautiful, but … is it necessary? In a year when #OscarsSoWhite is trending on Twitter, do we need another movie about a prideful, vengeful struggle between two complicated, powerful white men? I tend to think not.