How The Revenant failed to move me – Brief thoughts on the crisis of meaning in modern movie storytelling

The Revenant movie review Leonardo DiCaprioThe Revenant looks spectacular on the screen. It’s brilliantly acted. It’s exciting. It has even received praise for its representation of indigenous characters. So why did it leave me, and many others, feeling so dissatisfied?

The primary themes in The Revenant seem to be survival and revenge, two evocative themes that have been successfully explored since Shakespeare and probably before – Titus Andronicus, Moby Dick and Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road all come immediately to mind. Unlike these examples however, The Revenant reveals nothing insightful about how survival or revenge shape our shared human experience. Essentially a story of surfaces, The Revenant fails utterly to deepen our questions or our understanding of ourselves. Secondary themes of resilience, determination, and love show up alongside survival and revenge, and all are consistently ignored as possible openings for deepening an inquiry of what it means to be part of the human journey.

To feel satisfying, a story must strike a chord within us. It must remind us of who we are. Stories that stand the test of time, that hold up to retelling again and again, stories that touch us deeply, are stories that reflect the mystery and nuance of life, real or imagined.

Stories that feel satisfying often have a redemptive or transformational quality. We see a character discover that they are not who they believed themselves to be. Or we see help come unexpectedly, impossibly, from either inside or outside of themselves. (The short section of the film when Leonardo DiCaprio is serendipitously saved by a Pawnee man is perhaps the most profound.) A character’s journey also speaks to us when we see them come full circle, returning home simultaneously changed and also more themselves than ever. These narrative themes are satisfying in stories because they are satisfying in life. They nourish our imaginations because they nourish our soul.

But mainstream culture today is disconnected from real nourishment. If we fail to recognize what is truly nourishing in our lives, it follows that the stories we share will reflect a similar  failure. The failure that we see in so much modern movie storytelling is, I believe, a cultural failure to discern disposable entertainment (or fake emotion; sentimentality) from a story that reflects something meaningful about the life journey.

Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies are satisfying because they resonate with our fear of loss and our deep knowing that the revenge impulse is certain only to escalate suffering. There’s wisdom in this knowing. The Revenant is markedly absent of all such meaning and wisdom, even in the face of enormous brutality and loss. It settles instead for being yet another empty tale of individual determination and cleverness, a fight against odds, but with no discernible reward either material or spiritual.

The absence (or presence) of meaning, human resonance, and wisdom in stories is not necessarily an issue of era or genre. This past Christmas season our family watched both A Christmas Story and Home Alone. I was struck by the deep differences in feel between these two holiday movies. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie is a boy who wants a BB gun. He wants it more than anything. You could say he’s on a quest. You feel his longing. As he’s foiled at every turn (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) you feel his pain. Through a miracle Ralphie gets his gun, and promptly wounds himself with it (he nearly shoots his eye out). There’s a familiar depth of longing, hope, disappointment, and ultimately victory, that the story, though light-hearted, manages to evoke throughout.

Watching Home Alone is an altogether different experience. Home Alone, like The Revenant, is a story of survival and revenge, of individual determination and cleverness. Unlike A Christmas Story, Home Alone feels unfamiliar, disjointed. It’s entertaining (occasionally wildly so!), but empty. It rings hollow, not just because the plot is so farfetched (believability is not a factor for the kind of resonance that makes for a satisfying story), but because it seems to be written about human beings that you can’t imagine having ever known or been, and hence can not muster much care for.

I was surprised to learn that the director of The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu, also made the imaginative and  transcendental Birdman just a year earlier. Both films centre on humans with superhuman qualities. Interestingly, The Revenant, with the concrete superhumanity of its lead character, fails to connect the viewer with their own sense of (super)humanity, while Birdman, with its abstract (and deeply uncertain) superhero lead manages to put the viewer in touch with their own (equally uncertain?) heroic qualities. Both films are gritty, but in entirely different ways, and somehow Birdman reveals a very different, and I believe, far more significant sort of super-human quest. The two make a fascinating contrast in storytelling.

We may want super-human characters in our stories, but we still want to be able to relate to them from our own humanity. On some level we want to learn something about ourselves from the characters in stories, and, perhaps more importantly, we want them to affirm the learning we’ve already done.

What do you think? What sort of cinematic storytelling moves you? What leaves you cold?

Disclaimer – I’m not a movie critic, and this certainly isn’t a movie website, and perhaps movies are just supposed to be innocent passtimes, and maybe “good” is totally subjective. But as a counsellor and therapist, my work is about meaning; discerning meaning, making meaning… and so when I watch a movie I’m interested in the meaning (or lack) that it evokes. I just can’t help it.

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