In ‘The Revenant,’ Horror Takes On Race And Military Suicide

This weekend I stumbled across The Revenant on Cinemax. According to Wikipedia, this film won a ton of awards, but I somehow missed it when it was in theaters (or maybe it never came to Nashville?) Either way, I was just looking for something cheesy to watch and there it was. It’s so good that I ended up watching it twice. (Fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.)

Not that it’s a perfect movie. It runs long and calls individual Wiccans “Wiccas.” But it’s really good.

The general premise of the movie is that Bart Gregory, played by David Anders, dies in the Iraq War and his body is shipped home for burial. He comes back from the dead, and his best friend, Joey, played by Chris Wylde, helps him cope, through murder, mayhem, and blood-drinking.

But everything you’d expect to see in a movie about the difficulties of coming home are there — how you’ve been through something you have a hard time understanding yourself and the people around you aren’t that well-equipped to help you with; how you feel like you might have been changed into something you can’t get back from; how you are a danger to the people you love because of those changes; and that there is no place for you in civilian society. Plus a lot about how others might see you as a bit of a bad-ass while you feel bumbling and uncertain about returning to normal life and about how the messes you made beforehand are still waiting for you when you get back.

And the ending is so similar to what happened to a guy I know that it shocked me. I know this kind of marks me as a fool, but part of why I had to watch it again was the dawning realization that, in order for that last joke to work, it must happen A LOT–that people who are in no shape to return back to the theater of war that so messed them up in the first place don’t get to get out of fighting. My mind had settled on, “Well, what happened to the guy I know is terrible, but it must be a fluke.” My mind was wrong.

If this were a straight-up drama, you’d suffocate under the weight of how depressing it is. But those themes, in this movie, are alternately scary and hilarious. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what scares people and why (because I normally write about the Tennessee State Legislature) and why people enjoy horror as a genre.

I said earlier in the week that I think horror is a form of tragedy. I mean, obviously, it’s not horrible if a bad thing happens but everyone lives through it and ends up okay. But I want to revise that a little bit, because I think horror can do certain things that tragedy usually doesn’t. At a structural level, there is room in horror for the sliver of hope that you can survive. Sometimes people do.

But I want to talk about it at the level of what we’re willing to look at while we’re being entertained–the things that just get acknowledged as accepted fact in order to get onto the story. For instance, no matter how good the buzz at Sundance is right now, I’m betting that most of you aren’t anticipating seeing Fruitvale. Even The Hollywood Reporter review of it says, “commercial prospects are limited.” In other words, it’s not the kind of movie most people want to watch (even though there are people who rightly think that it’s important to watch).

It’s hard looking straight at how expendable black men are in our society, how easily they die, how almost expected it is. But this is something we’ve been seeing over and over again in horror movies since at least Night of the Living Dead, even as we were looking at something else. I mean, it’s such an accepted trope that the black guy dies that the subversion of this trope is now a trope in and of itself. While we’re watching for the monsters, the movies show us over and over things we would otherwise choose to not see.

So, here, in The Revenant, when we’re watching a man come back from the dead and prowl through the streets for victims he’s not going to feel too bad about, we’re seeing a man come back from a war and find a society not set up for him to return to. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but he comes back from Iraq, scares the crap out of his friends with his behavior, becomes a criminal, accidentally kills his girlfriend, and then tries to kill himself, before being sent back into combat–as if being in combat has made him only good for killing.

It’s terrible to look straight at the fact that more people in the military died last year from suicide than in combat and that the military has an ongoing problem with people coming home and enacting violence on their loved ones. But, again, we see it on screen in The Revenant while we’re looking at something else.

The same strategy holds true for the race and class commentary the film is making. We’re looking at the two main characters try to pick their victims while we’re seeing how homeless people and sex workers are vulnerable to all kinds of trouble. And even when the film trades in the tropes of the Mexican gang-banger or the black guy who robs the store, the film does a lot of subtle work to undermine the stereotypes it plays on (whether or not it does so successfully is open to discussion, I think).

We repeatedly see that Bart is troubled by the suffering of children — he stops his truck in Iraq for a kid and he regrets killing the drug-dealing cops when he sees a picture of one of their kids. But he never gets to hear that Miguel had children (that information is given only to Joey) so he never gets to see the man whose head he cradles in his lap, whose blood he sucks from said head in one of the more tender moments in the movie, as a full human. This makes it easier to literally leech off him, I suppose.

In case the blood-sucking white guy with the Mexican victim is too subtle for you, the black guy who robs the Korean liquor store quotes Frantz Fanon. The movie basically comes right out and tells you “While you are watching one thing, you are seeing something else.”

Anyway, all this got me thinking that an important thing horror does is give us space to see things other than what we’re watching for, to acknowledge — without having to admit it to ourselves — what we otherwise refuse to know.