Film bros and The Revenant litmus test

On the back of director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Best Picture win last year at the Academy Awards with Birdman, it would be a reasonable – although perhaps not entirely safe – bet that with The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s long coveted (and often mocked) desire for an Oscar might finally be within reach. With films like Babel (2006) and 21 Grams (2003) also to his name, Iñárritu is a stalwart of the Oscar genre – and a genre it is. Abiding loyally to its codes and conventions, The Revenant is, for me at least, pompous and self-aggrandising enough to be considered ‘on brand’ in terms of possible Oscar success. I am of course a minority in finding the film a bore: it is receiving wide critical praise.

Loosely based on Michael Punke’s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge (2002), the film is a reimagining of the tale of real-life nineteenth century American frontiersman Hugh Glass. Yet I’m less concerned here with discussing the film itself than the bizarre discourse that has manifested around it. There has without question been some insightful critical engagement with the film, particularly on issues of race. But as documented with almost ritualistic fury across social media, the gendering of language by some around the film has been astonishing, even for those of us resigned to the constant drumbeat of casual misogyny issued by Film Twitter’s dominant dude-bro regime.

‘Masculine’ is a common descriptor in many reviews of the film, but the first raise of the eyebrow came when noted troll, blogger Jeff Wells, tweeted in November:

Wells’ ‘women problem’ has long form, spanning back at least to 2007. Perhaps more concerning was Rolling Stone’s film critic for the last twenty-five years or so, Peter Travers, whose review of the film also opted for weirdly gendered language: ‘Note to movie pussies,’ he begins. ‘The Revenant is not for you.’ While outrage spread, I found the logic of the question inherent in Travers’ statement oddly insightful. If this movie is not for ‘movie pussies’, then surely that means its intended demographic is men like Wells and Travers themselves: movie dicks.

Yet there’s something at work here far more complex than a high-profile film pulling back the curtain on a couple of dinosaur film critics. I am – as the opening paragraph of this article no doubt made clear – not a huge Iñárritu fan in terms of my own personal taste. As a critic, I can objectively see value in his craft and I ‘get’ why Birdman in particular was embraced and celebrated, but for myself it just didn’t quite hit the mark. Despite this, I saw The Revenant: not for work, not because I was interested, not because I thought I might like it, but because a couple of creeps suggested that because of my gender, I was incapable of liking it.

I found myself, then, in a curious double bind watching the film. The deck has been stacked against me: if I didn’t like the film, then according to their essentialist logic, I risked proving Travers and Wells right. But if I did like it, I worried it might be self-conscious contrary-ism, a ‘yeah I’m up for it’ posturing that manifests as a bristling rejection of accusations of being a ‘movie pussy’. Either way, my stance on the film feels inextricably linked to an agenda set by openly hostile, regressive male critics. Movie dicks.

The particular scene at the centre of much of this discourse is the now already famous bear attack sequence, where DiCaprio’s character is viciously mauled by a grizzly. So feverish was the public response to the supposed intensity of the violence here that in one of the most bewildering PR moves in recent cinema history, DiCaprio stated publicly that he was not in reality raped by the bear: ‘It’s absurd’, he said. For a film that has so much going on in terms of its depiction of violence against women, it is curious that this was the aspect that has received the most attention.

The discourse surrounding The Revenant took me back to my first encounter with what is loosely defined as ‘extreme’ cinema, in the seedy group houses of my late teens and early twenties, where invitations to watch films like this issued by male housemates – films like Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Japanese Guinea Pig films – were framed like a challenge to step into a fight cage. Are you tough enough? Do you have it in you? Are you man enough?

I have written three books now on cinema that falls under the umbrella of ‘extreme’ cinema (and am currently writing my fourth): in many ways, when I began, I felt that I had to fight my way in to stake a claim as a woman fan of these kinds of movies. I have worked hard to find a way of articulating precisely why this film could be for ‘me’ (a woman) as much as ‘you’ (a man). Yet three books in, I still get looks of surprise when male fans and critics realise I might know what I am talking about. And it’s not only men: last year, a woman journalist from a major newspaper said to me, ‘Who would know by looking at you that you were into horror movies? You’re so petite.’

The Revenant is a stark reminder that I am as confused now as I was when first informally ‘dared’ to watch Cannibal Holocaust as to why I am made to feel that I have to prove myself, to show my mettle by jumping through male-defined hoops of what does or does not define ‘intense’ cinema. In 2016, watching cinema under the gun of expectations of swooning, pearl-clutching and fainting is as offensive as it is archaic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with the hyperbole surrounding The Revenant reaching levels like the ludicrous ‘DiCaprio was raped by a bear’ panic, it is almost inevitable that for those with a familiarity with more extreme cinema, the scene in question would come as a disappointment.

For those of us with a taste for this kind of cinema – and there are many of us – claims such as those by Nico Lang at Salon that ‘No character in film history has been put through quite as much pain and turmoil as Hugh Glass’ are ridiculous. It’s no picnic, sure, but the film as a whole ultimately left me feeling little more than annoyed with myself for falling for the hype. Watching The Revenant, I just kept wondering: is that it?


Image: 20th Century Fox

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

More by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Your take on the Revenant was quite surprising, but sadly disappointing. As devoted activist, I can feel for you for your emotions toward how men treat women, but that’s none of your concern since they don’t matter. You should’ve watched this film, not for the film’s hype or for the assholes that provoked you to see the film, but for its trailer and your interest in it. The film is not an easy watch, but it’s worth it for its subtle deep meanings and the topics it covers: sexism + rape, justice, second chances, Native’s new life adjustments, animal cruelty, lgbt peace, and the preservation of nature. Couple you years from now, that land is going to be gone thanks to our world of business and market. I saw it with an amazing audience, both mixing from males and females and elders. The Revenant wasn’t made for everyone to see but for those who understand that anything is possible in this messed up place that we like to call home, Earth.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.