A Flash of Nuance in The Revenant’s Wake

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This isn’t a review, but still, spoilers abound.


I had the unusual pleasure of watching The Revenant last night. I say unusual because it’s essentially grimdark and something of an ordeal to experience. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hardy, it follows Glass, a tracker who embarks on a monomaniacal quest for revenge after being left for dead following a terrifying bear attack. The performances are excellent and the film is, grimness aside, astonishingly beautiful – you might even say it achieves something spiritual, if you’re that way inclined (I’m not… but it stirred something, that’s for sure).

But this isn’t a review. I think everybody praised the film when it was released so by now you know it’s great, right? I wanted to talk about a specific moment which astonished me and got me thinking about depth and richness of character, about that special nuance that makes characters interesting, as opposed to simple archetypes and caricatures. Now this is a movie, not a literary work (although the film is based on a novel that in turn was based on a poem) but I still felt that I’d either learned something as a writer, or had an opinion validated, through watching it.

The film is full of stand-out scenes, but as if so often the case, the one that made my brain light up the most was something quiet and almost thrown away. Two thirds through the film, when Glass has rescued a Native American from a band of rapacious mercenarial traders, one of the survivors manages to find his way to the settlement where the rest of Glass’s original band are based. After listening to the man’s story, and after finding on his person a canteen that was left with Glass when he was abandoned, they realise that the hardy frontiersman is still alive and they prepare a rescue party.

The survivor sits down opposite Fitzgerald, the man who abandoned Glass and also killed his son. Fitzgerald, having assumed that Glass was long dead by now, is obviously alarmed at the turn of events. The camera is fixated on the whites of his eyes and you can see the wheels desperately turning as he strives to work out how he might extricate himself from the situation. As this is happening, marginally in frame, you see Fitzgerald slide his half-eaten plate of food across the table to the survivor.

Why do I love this moment so much? Because Fitzgerald is the ‘dark lord’ of the film. He’s the monster, the villain. The film stops just short of putting any real weight behind the idea that he was forced to kill Glass’s son, or that he was motivated by genuine fear of another attack by members of the Arikara tribe, but some flecks of grey are certainly present in the gloomy darkness at the heart of the character. Nevertheless, he’s the bad guy in this story and Glass wants him dead. So do we.

Yet in this moment of cold dread, when he knows the game is up, Fitzgerald pushes his plate towards the shivering, traumatised survivor. Perhaps he’s lost his appetite, but he doesn’t get up and leave as we might expect. Is this some adherence to a code of conduct? Is that a chink of light in that heart of darkness? Nothing is clear, and this is precisely what I love about the moment.

Iñárritu doesn’t even pass comment. As I say, the plate is barely in the frame. But it certainly slides across the table, silently, guided by Fitzgerald’s hand. It’s a piece of subtle magic that provides an extra level of depth to what is already a well-drawn character. We’re left to ruminate on it, unsure as to what the message of the shot actually is. Unless we missed it altogether, which is easy to do and part of the incident’s charm.

This, in a nutshell, is what gets me. We’re drilled to write everything for a reason, to delineate our characters and keep things clear. If someone does something, there should be a reason, and it should all cohere. It should be neat, so unlike the universe we live in. But these little moments, these sparks of magic and mystery, that little off-note that makes us furrow our brow and not quite get it can have as much power as the most clearly-written passage. At least, that’s how it is to me.

I can’t pretend there’s a solid lesson here, but I’m a sucker for nuance. Offer me a Dark Lord who wants to take over the world because, well, he’s the Dark Lord, and I could care less. Give me a brutal and remorseless killer who makes the effort to slide his meal over to a complete stranger and I feel like the story (movie, novel, whatever) has connected me to the actual universe, with all its messy and convoluted strands, grey areas and puzzles. Sometimes this is exactly what I want from a story.

Sometimes, I suppose, we achieve authenticity through chaos rather than clarity. Mystery rather than truth.

C.

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