History: “ the endless repetition of previous violence” Cathy Caruth (Unclaimed Experience 63).
“American Gothic narratives express a profound anxiety about historical crimes” Eric Savoy (Cambridge Companion to American Gothic 168)
The Pilgrim’s Progress, along with Go Down Moses or/and Moby Dick, and other literary ghosts populate the forests and open spaces of the wilderness elaborated by filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki as backdrop for an epic encounter between Man and the Other—natural or human. The film does not provide any romantic or aesthetic relief despite the beauty of the iconic images. Instead, it fits within the tradition of American Frontier Gothic where natural landscapes are haunted by their own histories: Hugh Glass’s fight against the grizzly bear conjures up other deadly struggles. The woods—we can feel their texture/substance and ecosystem—offer glimpses of the gothic maze with its attending conflation of fear and desire, and its economy of transgression (the labyrinth in Kubrick’s The Shining comes to the viewer’s mind). The movie opens with the formulaic assault on the white community, a well-known topos of the captivity narrative. The community, in this case, is not “innocent” but enacts the “curse”, to use Faulkner’s word, which pits Man against his fellow earth dwellers, and himself .The harshness and rawness of the conflict finds its root in greed and lust. The violence unleashed by spoliation breaks the balance between nature and humans, and wrecks havoc within the human species. Any attempt to uphold order and reason against the crushing logic of the jungle is doomed to failure: animal blood mixes with human blood in a world “delivered” (the river sequences trigger another interfilmic excursion by probing into the visual and thematic abyss of Deliverance) from contracts and rules: Lewis’s agonizing question “where is the Law?” in Boorman’s master sequence is recalled as images of ravages and destruction overwhelm our viewing experience and invade our consciousness. The buffalo ambushed by the wolves offers not so much a cameo of nature’s cruelty as a foil to human killing excesses—only Man kills for profit.
The other panel of this screen allegory yet displays a tribute to courage and the resilience of fraternity. Glass owes his life to the compassion of a fellow creature who sheds the animosity brought about by History to launch into the common adventure of human bonding and survival. The “Other” acknowledges in his earthly brother a similar need to eat and exist. Fellow casualties of hatred and enmity, the two men share one horse and journey together through a hostile land, writing up an alternative story to the master narrative of power and warfare. Soon caught up by History, however, the Indian companion is killed by French trappers who tie a sign around his neck with the inscription: “On est tous des sauvages” (the French quote leaves mute the implicit debate around terms like “savage” and “wild”).
The encounter with the French trappers explores the twin theme of colonialism and empire building—then and now. As Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt note, “while the U.S. defended itself as the world’s first independent and anti-colonial nation-state it simultaneously incorporated many of the defining features of European colonial networks—including the colour line—into its economic and cultural life” (Postcolonial Theory and the United States 5). Struggles between the trappers/settlers and Native Americans conjure up the exercise of imperial power implemented within the US and abroad. In Amy Kaplan’s words, “the colonial tropes of conquest, conflict and resistance have shaped the culture of the US and the cultures of those it has dominated within and beyond its geographical borders” (Cultures of United States Imperialism 4). The film indeed resonates with contemporary debates on American/Western imperialism and dominion, and more largely with current discussions of borders and frontiers. The chilled landscape offers an interesting counterpoint to Texas as the recurrent filmic and literary space to stage such conflicts in the contemporary artistic imagination. Borders are both geographical and symbolic: the ground is littered with corpses and, as Julia Kristeva puts it in “Approaching Abjection”, “the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that encroaches upon everything” (The Continental Aesthetics Reader 543). The physical horror forces the viewer to confront the terror of warfare through the materiality and viscerality of it bodily destruction.
The length of the movie is a tutorial in patience. The series of iconic landscapes (mountains, prairie, river, woods) marks time as much as space. The slow pace espouses the gradual progress to recovery and civilization through an environment that seems cruelly indifferent to human suffering, nodding to Turner’s theory of the Frontier and its shaping influence on the American character. Leonardo diCaprio has shed all the glamour of his actorial persona in favor of some Method Acting rawness that is pushed to the limits of the bearable for the viewer. The flights into Magic Realism can be seen as supplements to the horrors and inadequacies of realism; they stage the haunting of loss. Glass—witness to and victim of destruction—seems unable to break free from the memory of violence. Poetry, wisdom, and love dwell in the space of memory and dream, hovering above their nightmarish counterparts in reality. Confined to a past that cannot be retrieved, they seem to have deserted the physical place of the present.
In the end, however, the movie invites to consider one way out of savagery, away from the wilderness of one’s instincts. Glass lets go of a desire for revenge that won’t bring back the beloved son from the dead. By recognizing the presence of another judgment—that of the Creator of all and everything, God—he exorcizes the hubris and arrogance that have generated so much chaos. He surrenders to the Other in his inevitable vulnerability, and appeals to something different than might or physical power: mercy. Bridger’s gesture of compassion for the Indian woman earlier in the film had anticipated the final act.
It is through such empathy that we can survive, that is the price of life.
No more, no less.