Standing in line in the ladies room after a Saturday matinee of The Revenant, I found myself surrounded by a bunch of bemused women who looked a little shell shocked. At first, everyone was quiet. Was it the vicious attack in the much-hyped bear mauling scene that had them stunned into silence? The nearly all-male cast that was difficult for women to relate to? The grueling two-and-a-half-hour runtime?
"I really liked it," one woman offered sheepishly, as if she couldn't believe she'd admitted it out loud.
"I know," said another, shaking her head. "The violence didn't bother me as much as I thought it would."
We all nodded our heads in wonder at our reactions to the film, which were unanimously filled with something approaching awe. All this from a movie that none of my female friends would see with me, afraid it would be too violent for them to sit through. But there I was with a chummy group of strangers who'd braved the elements of brutal cinema and lived to tell the tale.
There is a lot to tell about The Revenant that women should hear (spoiler alert!). While the film has plenty of savage violence, it isn't a nonstop blood fest. Many scenes feature protagonist Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) trekking through the northwest wilderness or plotting his next move with meditative deliberation.
Plus, when violence is shown, it seems accurate to what trappers might have experienced in the 1800s whether in battle scenes, mano-a-mano, or bearo-a-mano. This realistic portrayal of violence seems essential to this particular story. Uncomfortable to watch, certainly, but essential.
The big surprise is that The Revenant is not simply a testosterone-laced survivalist tale fueled by revenge. I felt a spiritual and feminine subtext underlying the hyper-masculine veneer.
First, there is Mother Nature. She is gorgeous, unrelenting, and in control. Shot solely in natural light with beautifully framed, single-camera shots, the film begs to be seen on the big screen. Its snowy, desolate landscapes with towering pines provide a dignified beauty that only harsh environments can deliver as simply and powerfully.
Hints of feminine subtext surfaced quickly in an early scene between Hugh Glass and his teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). We learn that Glass's Pawnee wife is dead, and he plays both father and mother to his son, who is treated disdainfully by some of the other trappers because of his Native American heritage. When Glass crawls through the woods to confirm the horror of his son's death, I had the strongest urge to see Glass touch his boy, to literally feel the loss. I figured this to be a motherly impulse. But sure enough, within a few seconds, that's exactly what Glass does. He lays down with his son and nestles in with him tenderly for what seems like hours. This gesture of familial love strikes me as more maternal than paternal.
Small moments punctuate the film with Glass's respect for women. He frees a Native American woman from a group of French traders who held her captive as a sex slave. This is done at considerable risk to Glass. He doesn't harbor thoughts of taking her for himself; he simply wants her returned safely to her community. In another scene, Glass carves out the innards of a freshly dead horse, strips off his clothes, and curls up in the fetal position inside the animal's cooling body. How could a viewer not think of a woman's body offering the most primal of feminine protections?
But it is Glass's wife, portrayed in flashbacks and dream sequences, whose enduring words and otherworldly presence convey the real feminine core of the film. Her lines, which are repeated more than once, inform nearly every frame of the film: "As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm. And you stand in front of a tree. If you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability."
Glass seems to have absorbed her feminine wisdom, turning it into a sort of life-saving mantra. His wife appears on screen as a loving, spiritual guide, not a sexual fantasy or marginalized human. She is elevated, revered, listened to. She is never given a name, which seems to underscore her representation of all women.
The dual nature of the film's energy plays out through the ending in a scene that is stark and unforgettable. Glass, informed, by his wife's Pawnee dictum, "revenge is in God's hands, not mine," restrains himself from a final act of vengeance. During this sequence, there is a lingering shot of a saturated patch of red blood on snow, leeching into a river that seems to represent death, sacrifice, and rebirth. It is an indelible image that cannot help but invoke how women routinely give of themselves, physically and emotionally.
So ladies, go see The Revenant if you want. You'll find more familiar territory than you might expect. We bleed. We understand vengeance. We know that leaving a trail of carnage behind is sometimes necessary to create a new life.
We are survivors too.