Harrowing film ‘The Revenant’ broadens truths

Director portrays First Nations people with dignity

Darleen Ortega | 1/13/2016, 7:29 p.m.
The critical reaction to the work of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu chronically illustrates how dominant culture bias affects what ...
Leonardo DiCaprio and Grace Dove in "The Revenant." 20th Century Fox

The critical reaction to the work of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu chronically illustrates how dominant culture bias affects what stories are told and valued on film. His most heralded work is "Birdman," which won him the Oscar for best director last year and is about a successful white Hollywood actor facing an identity crisis (and happens to be my least favorite of his films). Iñárritu is an inventive and original director, but his vision tends to be praised in relation to how closely it hews to Hollywood values -- for things like cleverness and ambitious technical feats (like the continuous shot in "Birdman") -- and criticized for ways it deviates (like the spiritual elements in "Biutiful," which were viewed as incoherent by many U.S. critics, but which made that film, for me, Iñárritu's best work to date).

The same problem is already evident in the critical reaction to "The Revenant," Iñárritu's latest film. It's inspired by the legendary true story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman who in the 1820s was mauled by a bear and left for dead, yet survived and traipsed perhaps 200 miles alone to reach the men who had left him behind.

The film has been praised for its ambitious and intensely realistic approach to telling a story that involves harrowing physical risk and extremely harsh conditions, yet it has been criticized for having a "threadbare" story (The Playlist) and for "blowing it" with its inclusion of mystical and spiritual elements (New York Times). Even in describing the story, many critics give short shrift to or even omit any mention of its First Nations characters and elements, though they are central to the main character's motivation and to the way this story is told.

So once again I feel compelled to give Iñárritu his due where others haven't. He has indeed crafted an ambitious, vivid, and visceral depiction of life in the Old West that plows new ground in terms of its realism and stark beauty. The cast and crew endured subzero temperatures for months, filming in natural light under unusually harsh conditions and capturing like never before physical demands that we can scarcely imagine today. And you will never see anything like Glass's bone-crushing encounter with the mama grizzly bear, filmed in one long take; Iñárritu has captured the unendurable better than anyone ever imagined was possible.

But the best things about this film involve the care with which Iñárritu has imparted a vision of a world that Europeans (ancestors to most of us) destroyed. Never has the original way of life of First Nations people been portrayed with such specificity and dignity -- the clothes they wore, the houses they built, the languages that have all but disappeared. By filming in the wildest and most remote settings and duplicating so scrupulously the details of life during those times, the film captures the ingenuity it took to build civilizations that were destroyed in the name of -- well, civilized society and Manifest Destiny.