Putting on the Bear-Serk with Leo (The Revenant)
Updated: Mar 8
by Sam Stoeltje
Why do I want to talk about The Revenant, a gruesome prestige picture from 2015? It is at least superficially a realist film, dwelling upon the destructibility and also persistence of the flesh, about material problems like infection, supply lines, and sloppy field stitches. And yet, and yet, and yet. In the altered states of dream and memory, magic pokes through.
A central moment in the film is Glass’s memory of the death of his native wife and her entire Pawnee village at the hands of the U.S. Army; he approaches her, dying on the floor, and watches as a bird flutters out of her shirt, clearly symbolizing her departing soul or spirit. Indeed, Glass’s partner, and the mother of his son Hawk (murdered by Tom Hardy’s character, Fitzgerald), becomes the center of a fitful magical realist inclination that persists throughout the film, and she appears at its end as a ghostly manifestation, perhaps inviting a dying Glass to follow her into the spirit world – although whether he is in fact dying is left ambiguous. If any of this is setting off alarm bells regarding colonialist tropes like the "ghostly Indian," I think it should; we will come back to this question. Historically though, this sub-plot is baseless: there's no evidence Glass had a native wife or a half-native son; they were invented and woven into the narrator by Innaritu, or, as I haven’t read the novel it was based upon, perhaps that book's author, WTO ambassador(!) Michael Punke, although I doubt it.
I decided that this post was going to focus on a more interpretive, let’s say, paracultural impulse in the film, that is, its symbolic preoccupation with becoming a bear. (If we wanted for whatever reason to sound Deleuzian, we could call it becoming-bear, but let’s not.) So imagine my surprise when, following a lead on The Revenant’s Wikipedia article, I learned that acclaimed literary scholar - and theorist of “deep time,” very cool - Wai Chee Dimock had beaten me to the punch in her article on the film for the L.A. Review of Books.
Dimock deftly connects the film’s obsession with Dicaprio’s bearplay (e.g., wearing a bearskin and crawling around for a decent chunk of the film, catching a fish in the river and eating it with his bare hands) to a scene in Last of the Mohicans, in which Natty Bumpo (the actual name of the character) conducts a daring rescue in a hostile native village while wearing a bearskin, thus impersonating and passing as a shaman-figure, in what is not even close to one of the most racist incidents in the book. The comparison is pitch-perfect; I know because I was planning to do the same thing in this post (that is, compare these two instances of bearskin-wearing white guys).
Dimock seems to really like the movie, choosing to focus on its representation of U.S. race and racialization in the nineteenth century. Innaritu’s Glass, with his mixed family, becomes for her a figure with a unique social and even phenomenological perspective. She’s certainly right that it would be harder to imagine a white guy protagonist further from Natty Bumppo than the quasi- or proto-anticolonial Glass (reference is made by other characters to him having shot an Army officer in defense of his half-Pawnee son).
So, my departure: While I agree with Dimock that Innaritu “remixes” The Last of the Mohicans, and that its revisionist impulse is a helpful departure from standard frontier narratives, it must be acknowledged that this is ultimately an incrementalist improvement rather than truly radical storytelling, which of course is what we should expect from a film that features a meticulously rendered CGI bear and stars, cough, Leonardo Dicaprio. Like the revisionist westerns that are its antecedent, The Revenant attempts to include indigenous subjectivity, and to represent settler colonial brutality and racism, but it still incontrovertibly centers its settler protagonist, and worse, like Last of the Mohicans, quite simply cannot imagine a futurity, either for people of native or mixed-ancestry (they all die). Even if Dimock is right that Glass serves as a “spectral embodiment of miscegenation” despite still being, you know, a white guy, even he appears not to survive the film’s end.
And honestly: Does the film escape from the worst impulses of the “white man playing Indian”?
Here is where the bear-shirt comes in, and things are going to get a little tangled up, so bear with me (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
Leonardo Dicaprio, or Hugh Glass, gets mauled by a bear. It is the “instigating incident.” His fellow mountain-men abandon him in a state of mortal peril, but they leave the bear skin behind, and he wears it through most of the movie. During his long journey back to mountain man H.Q., he very much becomes a bear, doing various bear-like things. The way in which the film is clearly engaged in the human/non-human distinction makes it ripe for a critical animal reading, although such a reading would necessarily have to also be capable of thinking about race, racialization and colonization. Maybe someone has already done it; I don’t feel like searching JSTOR right now.
This is because the film, like Last of the Mohicans before it, can’t help but think animality together with indigeneity; and here even more worrisome terms like brutality and savagery come to mind. Perhaps most of all, The Revenant wants to think about something like wildness, the most representative moment of this thinking-about certainly being the scene in which Leo/Glass, salivating over the recent kill of a native man on his own revenge quest, is fed a piece of raw buffalo meat.
But to say that the film equates indigeneity with animality would be unfair. Whatever is happening is more complicated than that.
Aside from Last of the Mohicans, the other text that The Revenant made me think of was William T. Vollmann’s The Ice-Shirt, a very weird novel, although it feels wrong to call it that, since the “novel” is part of a seven volume series, includes a lot of folklore and no small amount of what I like to call "bad ethnography."
The Ice-Shirt is essentially about Medieval colonization of Greenland, but in what I’ll call a “mythical realist” register, one that involves a sustained engagement with both Norse and Inuit cosmology. This includes a sort of motif in the form of the Norse magical belief in the transmutational effects of certain articles of clothing, that is, shirts, that is, serkir, which are both things that you wear but also metaphysical postures you adopt (as I recall; it’s been a few years since I read it and it is, as is typical of Vollmann, a difficult book) (and I’m no Medievalist, not even a little bit).
If you were at any time a nerdy adolescent, you may at this point have flashbacks to some 12-year-old breathlessly explaining to you what a berserker is.
Wikipedia, fill us in:
“In the Old Norse written corpus, berserkers were those who were said to have fought in a trance-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the modern English word berserk (meaning "furiously violent or out of control"). Berserkers are attested to in numerous Old Norse sources… The Old Norse form of the word was berserkr (plural berserkir). It likely means "bear-shirt" (compare the Middle English word serk, meaning shirt), "someone who wears a coat made out of a bear's skin". Thirteenth-century historian Snorri Sturluson interpreted the meaning as "bare-shirt", that is to say that the warriors went into battle without armour, but that view has largely been abandoned.”
Vollmann uses the “bear-shirt” in The Ice-Shirt to, as we would expect given its famous derivative, signify a capacity for a kind of bottomless rage and cruelty. In a more dedicated exploration of his novel, I would want to think about Vollmann’s metaphysical wardrobe here together with the pathologies of coloniality and whiteness, perhaps bringing him into conversation with people like Leslie Silko and James Baldwin.
But to keep it confined to The Revenant: something is going on here with the bearskin, something that exploits not only an imaginary conflation of indigeneity and animality but also possibly invokes a Norse or Nordic cosmology as well. We have a real viper’s nest of racialized imaginings going on, especially when we take into account the deeply fucked conceptual genealogy that wants to claim the European-descended inhabitants of a settler colonial U.S. as the inheritors of an “Aryan” legacy or birthright (see Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People).
So what happens when Leo puts on the bear-shirt? Does he become a bear? Does he become Pawnee? Does he become a “spectral embodiment of miscegenation”? Does he become a Viking? In The Revenant, I feel, all of these things are somehow happening at once, which is why it is both an effective and somewhat incoherent film, tapping into the fever dream of racialization that simmers in our national imaginary.
This post is already too long, but leaving it here, I think that a comparison with Refn’s Valhalla Rising, in which the Vikings get their asses handed to them by the native people of Turtle Island, might at some point be in order.
Image credit here.