When I saw The Revenant (view trailer here) and watched Leonardo DiCaprio eating raw bison liver, hunched over on a frozen plain, the first thought in my head was: “Fuck, I want to do that. Where can I do that?”
I then recognized that it was more likely than not that I would live out my entire life without eating raw animal-parts while draped in bear-skin.
But I believe this “I want to do that,” or “I want to be like that” effect of the film is a clear contributor to its success. Particularly, its success with a male audience. The act of watching these heroics on screen help us cope with the fact that we’ll never be dramatic heroes ourselves.
It’s an inherently male vengeance-tale:
Man is wronged. Man fights against all odds and treks across wilderness and plain in order to right said wrong, i.e. kill the dude who left him for dead and murdered his son.
Eye for an eye, baby–sign me up! And they said Hammurabi was dead.
It’s a movie that appeals to men because we (I am a male) see these characters, Glass, Fitzgerald, etc., and we’re hit with a twinge of envy–which we display under the guise of admiration. The circumstances (romanticized ones, undoubtedly) and actions that we see performed on the screen exist in a realm that we have no access to.
The outlets available to Hugh Glass, where he can just slice open a dead horse and crawl right in, have been closed off to us. Nobody sitting in an AMC theater or a Loews is going to go out the next day and be hauling pelts, cruising down rivers like Lewis and Clark while being peppered with arrows. We’re all going home to sleep in warm beds. Sitting at desks the whole next day. Buying our groceries at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. None of us are going to kill a man. None of us are in danger of being killed.
Yet there’s Leo, up there on the screen, doing all the things we wish we were able to do. Feeling all the feelings we’ll never be forced to feel. Because we live in a soft, cushy world, where the walls are lined with down pillows and the only place it’s permissible to truly act as we want to is in our imaginations.
And that’s how we spend a lot of our time. I do at least. Fantasizing. Fantasizing about trudging through the snow-covered tundra, fighting off bloodthirsty wolves, all to crush my enemy’s esophagus with my thumbs–to set right what’s been wronged.
It’s so fantastically evocative I could almost masturbate to it.
And for that I kind of hate myself. And I don’t think I’m alone here. I think a lot of movie-going males will level with me. I kind of hate myself/my circumstances/the era in which I live because I’ll never have the chance to act in the way that Hugh Glass does in the movie (it’s a movie, I understand. But the inherent and undeniable desire to have it supplant my reality is there and not going away).
And not only will I never have the chance, my not having the chance prevents me from ever really knowing how I’d act if I was thrust into Hugh Glass’ shoes, John Fitzgerald’s shoes–or really the shoes of any protagonist in a film I enjoy. And so I fantasize, feeling impotent once I snap out of my hyper-masculine daydream.
My favorite movies (judge me all you want here) are Gladiator, and now The Revenant. I’ve seen Gladiator probably fifty times or more. It’s the same sort of deal. Commodus kills Marcus Aurelius, Maximus refuses to swear allegiance, his wife and son are killed, he escapes execution, becomes a gladiator and fights his way to face Commodus mano a mano, in the motherfucking Colosseum in front of all of Rome, no less.
The ultimate masculine fantasy! Are you not entertained? Fuck!
And while both of these films are great feats of acting, directing, cinematography, what-have-you, (just check out this analysis of a scene from The Revenant, narrated by Iñarritu himself), I think that inherently it is the fantasy-like plot that brings them success. The man within who dreams of being the man in the arena, the same man who will likely never set foot inside of it. The Revenant and Gladiator appeal to a dormant masculinity that lies grumbling deep in the bellies of men. Men who don’t really have a chance to act like men anymore.
We see these heroes, testaments to the men of the past, and know we’ll never live as they did. And so we live vicariously through the film. It’s nothing novel, living vicariously through a movie or a TV show, but it’s why the genre of these male vengeance-tales will never die, never stop evolving. Because as we sail into the future, we can’t help but alienate ourselves from the past. And the innately male desires we have–for better or for worse–will grow more muted, more suppressed.
The innate Paul Bunyan is waning, and our contact with him grows more tenuous by the minute. Films like The Revenant, like Gladiator, allow us to open up the conversation again.