Heading out to see the new Leonardo DiCaprio film, The Revenant, my friend joked, “Get ready for The Edge — Part Deux!”
Mr. DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, inspired by the actual frontiersman of that name. The Revenant tells the story of how, in 1823, a bear attacks Glass, who is then left for dead by his fellow fur trappers. Against all odds, however, he struggles to survive in the wilderness and get back home to the trading post.
My friend was referring to the 1997 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, The Edge. It is a gripping wilderness thriller written by David Mamet. Mr. Hopkins plays a billionaire whose plane eventually crashes deep in the Alaskan wilderness. He suspects that Mr. Baldwin’s character, a photographer, is having an affair with his wife, a model played by Elle Macpherson. When the two men find themselves stranded in the wild and hunted down by a vicious bear, they are forced to come together, despite the mutual suspicion and hostility they carry with them from society. They must cooperate in order to survive in nature.
In a nice twist, once the two men defeat the killer bear that spends much of the film pursuing them, the two men then turn on each other. Placed in the state of nature, surviving the existential threat of an attacking bear, the societal conventions that kept them from engaging in a violent struggle with one another slowly dissolve, and then their souls are finally laid bare.
Part of the excitement of the drama, of which Mr. Mamet is a master, is that the character’s choices are never foreordained. Episode by episode, things could always go either way, but each man defines himself slowly but surely with little choices along the way, as both their humanity and animality is allowed free rein within the state of nature. I am hard pressed to name a wilderness survival drama that equals this one in terms of dramatic power.
A large part of the cinematic impact of The Edge comes from Bart the Bear, a trained Kodiak bear who should have won an Academy award for best actor for his role. Up until The Revenant arrived on the scene, this was the go-to film if you wanted to experience vicariously the terror of actually being trapped in the forest with a vicious predator after you. What would you be able to do to survive?
With The Revenant, we now have a leap forward in technological moviemaking, as the camera is able to place us in the middle of a grizzly attack, in an even more viscerally terrifying way. Audiences around the world are flocking to experience what not even The Edge had made available to them in so primal an encounter. The direction by Alejandro González Iñárritu aims for maximum emotional impact, attained through technical wizardry.
The unique cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki achieves the heights of beauty that have become a personal signature of his, especially in the film’s dreamlike vision sequences, which convey a mystical quality. This visual poetry conveys the truth that there is a higher Providence standing in relation to this transitory world. It is the eternal source of true justice. It beckons to us, asking us to abandon our evil ways, in order that we may properly make our journey to the final frontier.
Unlike The Edge, which shows many suspenseful sequences in which the bear tenaciously tracks and hunts the men, The Revenant’s bear stages a devastating, one-off hit-and-run: a brutal encounter in which the awesome might of nature crushes a man, taking him to the very edge of death. This resembles the drama in The Edge only insofar as it poses the question: how far can a man be pushed to the edge by nature, before he is either crushed by its brutality, or able to successfully assert his will to survive?
But the greatest theme of The Edge is, “what one man can do, another man can do.” In other words, our ancestors survived attacks in the woods from vicious animals long before civilization and its comforts began to shield us from the state of nature. By our own human nature, we have the right stuff to survive.
At the same time, we also have the “wrong stuff,” precisely because “what one man can do, another man can do”: The mimetic capabilities we possess for survival in the state of nature also heighten the tensions within society, which threaten the stability of social relations. Consider that taking an Elle Macpherson supermodel for a lover is “what one man can do,” which then inspires societal envy and competition, since potentially “another man can do” the same thing. What stops one man from throwing off society’s constraints and returning to the state of nature, to try to take that other man’s wife, or even to kill him and take all his money?
This theme also finds a parallel in The Revenant, as the greatest threat that Glass faces comes not from nature itself, but from a rival trapper on the expedition: John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy. As in The Edge, the greatest threat that man faces is man. After all, if he is capable, against all odds, of survival in the state of nature, who else but man himself could be a comparable challenger?
But while The Revenant takes the prize for its technical ability to deliver unparalleled spectacle, it is actually The Edge that makes a more powerful dramatic statement with its more sophisticated handling of these timeless themes. The Revenant serves up an over-the-top Hollywood ending. It delivers the revenge fantasy that audience appetite craves. But this militates against the spiritual message of The Revenant’s mystical cinematographic sequences.
This incongruity with Glass’s character arc is heightened as soon as we compare it with the actual spiritual journey (from revenge to forgiveness) of the real-life Hugh Glass. The story of the historical Glass does not involve watching his son being murdered before his eyes. Hollywood invents this and adds it to the historical story.
Obviously it does so in order to heighten the emotional outrage of the audience being taken on the survival journey with Glass. But the motive of revenge for the murder of a family member blunts the spiritual subtlety of the real drama at the heart of this film. Arguably, it even negates the real inspiration of the historical source’s dramatic lesson. By delivering a heightened version of the clichéd revenge for which the unenlightened masses hunger, Iñárritu pulls us down, crashing back to earth from Lubezki’s spiritual heights.
This fatal dramatic mistake is nowhere in sight in The Edge. At the outset of the film, the Alec Baldwin character plays a birthday prank on the Hopkins billionaire. This occurs when the two are still comfortably protected by civilization, yet staying over in a log cabin suggestively situated on the edge of the state of nature.
Mr. Baldwin nearly frightens Mr. Hopkins to death when he puts on a hunter’s bearskin rug trophy in order to mimic an invasive attack of a bear on the cabin. It is a sick joke that nicely functions, with all the ironic, civilized pleasantries surrounding it, to define the dark undercurrents between these two men.
Yet it is also a brilliant foreshadowing of the struggle for survival that the two will soon face against a real live bear out in the state of nature. Even better, it is a visual clue alerting us to the very struggle of human nature that will also be brought to the fore by the tourists’ impending crash landing into the state of nature: the struggle of man against man, or the war of all against all.
On this point, the dramatized struggle between Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Baldwin is more enlightening than that between Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Hardy. I won’t spoil the endings for you, but suffice it to say, while man is the animal whose animality will always tie him to the struggle for survival within the state of nature, there is yet something more within the soul of man: it is something which is capable of transcending nature, should it come to the fore in our times of struggle.
That very something is the humanity of man, something which is arguably more evident in the serious tragic turn of The Edge than in The Revenant’s cruder, albeit viscerally effective, resort to bloody spectacle.
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