A couple of days before Thanksgiving, film blogger Jeffrey Wells sent out a tweet about “The Revenant” that set social media astir, suggesting the violence in the new western by Alejandro González Iñárritu — which features Leonardo DiCaprio as a 19th-century fur trapper gruesomely mauled by a bear — was so “unflinching brutal” that at least half the moviegoing public wouldn’t be able to stomach it. “Forget women seeing this,” he opined, categorically.
Iñárritu called Wells’s characterization not just “insulting to women” but also “ridiculous.” In a phone interview, the Oscar-winning director of “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” said that it is largely women, not men, who have picked up on what he called the film’s subtler themes, including one about — surprise — parental love. Loosely inspired by the true story of trapper Hugh Glass (1780-1833), “The Revenant” follows Glass’s 200-mile quest for revenge after his teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) is killed by a fellow trapper (Tom Hardy) and the badly injured Glass is abandoned and left for dead. Although the character of Glass’s son is fictional, the inspiration for the film’s hero really was attacked by a grizzly, in 1823. Pointedly, in the film, the bear is a mother defending her cubs.
“I have to say that the most in-depth comments I have received in the screenings where I have been, here and in London, have been from women,” Iñárritu said. “Women, in a way, are much more able to get into the movie’s background themes faster and easier than men. We are a little more brute.”
By way of example, the filmmaker cited one scene in which DiCaprio’s Glass, to keep from freezing to death during his winter journey, eviscerates a dead horse and spends a frigid night, naked but warm, inside its abdominal cavity. It was a woman, Iñárritu said, who observed that Glass’s emergence from the horse the next morning could be seen as a metaphor for childbirth — a metaphor that he never consciously intended but that he is all too happy to embrace.
“The branches of art grow in the souls of human beings in different ways,” he said, calling this particularly poetic interpretation of his own cinematic art “a branch with flowers.”
Iñárritu’s co-screenwriter, Mark L. Smith, said it is easy “to get lost in the woods” of the film’s violence, which includes, over 2
Although Smith’s unproduced screenplays include period adventures based on the lives of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and Harald Hardrada, the Viking king — both potential vehicles for DiCaprio, as producer and star, respectively — he is best known for his work in the horror genre, including 2007’s “Vacancy” and its straight-to-video sequel. (“They’re easier to get made,” Smith said, somewhat sheepishly.) Despite coverage focusing almost exclusively on the brutality of “The Revenant,” Smith insisted the violence is secondary to the father-son storyline.
“Revenge is the spark that ignites Glass’s journey,” Smith said. “Alejandro and I both felt that revenge was a goal without reward. Once you go down that path, nobody’s going to be satisfied at the end.”
Smith compared the vengeance narrative to a set of “railroad tracks through a barren wilderness,” around which Iñárritu created a rich “landscape” of secondary and tertiary themes.
The film’s theme of fatherly love is reinforced by a subplot, in which an Arikara warrior (Duane Howard) is searching for his daughter (Melaw Nakehk’o), who has been kidnapped into sex slavery by French trappers. “It was important to Alejandro to emphasize the theme of racism,” Smith said, “and the way the natives’ land was being devoured by us as we moved west.”
For all its depravity, “The Revenant” is a lovely film. It was shot in wintry locations in Calgary, Alberta, and Argentina by Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and its stark vistas belie what Smith called the brutal nature of frontier life in 19th-century America. With the notable exception of the bear scene, the film uses almost no CGI. Two of the most eye-popping shots — one involving an avalanche, the other an approaching snowstorm — were created without digital trickery, using carefully timed explosives in the first case and a snow machine, just off camera, for the second.
For all its cinematic bravura, Iñárritu said “The Revenant” is a quiet film — and not just because it has little dialogue. Sections of the script run for pages with barely any spoken words. At times, Smith recalled, it felt like he was writing a silent film.
Using only natural light, the film was shot mostly at dusk — the hour, Iñárritu said, when “God speaks.” It is then, the director said, that “there is an ecstasy in every object, when everything is shouting for beauty and presence,” in a way that is not the same at high noon.
“The Revenant” isn’t about Glass’s mauling and Hawk’s murder, or about the hero’s bloody quest to right a wrong, as Iñárritu and Smith argued. It is about what happens in between. Smith said one of his favorite scenes is when a starving Glass raises a stick — his gun has been taken — and points it an elk. “In that moment,” Smith said, “you get everything.”
Iñárritu waxed similarly poetic. “When we look at the night sky and we ask somebody what they see, they say ‘stars.’ But, actually, what we are seeing is the space — and the silence — between the stars.”
The Revenant (R, 156 minutes). At area theaters.