Everything to Lose: The Settler Colonial Stakes of The Revenant
One thing is crystal clear from 20th Century Fox’s new blockbuster hit The Revenant: settler lives matter. Hugh Glass, the 19th century American frontiersman played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is so incredibly immune to death that he rises from his own grave after having been torn to shreds by a grizzly at the film’s outset. The signature series of shots that every spectator is sure to remember – DiCaprio’s own breath fogging up the camera lens as he stares down its chamber – constitutes such an essential element of the film’s aesthetic that one is led to believe that Leonardo’s own life (or maybe just his Oscar) is on the line. My claim, then, is that The Revenant is first and foremost a story of settler survival and is therefore not without its settler colonial stakes.
Throughout the film, all we know of Glass’ history is that he has found himself an Indigenous partner with whom he shares a child and from whom he has acquired enough hunting and language skills to become the source of survival for fellow fur trappers. Without a whisper of Glass’ own family history – the circumstances of his arrival on Turtle Island, or the reasons for his having “married in” – the terms of Glass’ colonial complicity go unchallenged along with his infantile innocence. This colonial narrative technique provides a classic example of what Tuck and Yang (2012) have termed “settler moves to innocence.” In the settler colonial context, they define these self-confessionary strategies as an “attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all” (p. 10). One such move that they identify is that of settler nativism, embodied most emblematically in what Vine Deloria Jr. would term the “Indian-grandmother complex” (1969), whereby a settler conjures up a claim of Indian ancestry in order to come to terms with (aka: altogether avoid) the colonial contradictions of their own settler identity. Wondering why, Deloria asks:
Is it because [white people] are afraid of being classed as foreigners? Do they need some blood tie with the frontier and its dangers in order to experience what it means to be an American? Or is it an attempt to avoid facing the guilt they bear for the treatment of the Indians? (1988, p. 2-4, quoted in Tuck and Yang, 2012)
Glass may not be rambling on about how he has an Indian grandmother in his family tree, but the screenwriters and filmmaker are certainly bent on emphasizing his ties to an Indigenous family (only further emphasized by DiCaprio’s own bilingualism) over and against the rapacious realities of his own status as a settler. God forbid Glass be classed as a foreigner, like the other more American settlers in the film, whose colonial ravages (which are not effaced, as they so often are in Western frontier films) serve as a convenient contrast to Glass’ own settler identity, desperately delinked from the despotic dispossession of Indigenous lands, laws, and lives.
One might respond that Glass’ contrast to his more aggressively colonial European brothers only goes to show that he is actually an exception to the settler colonial rule, and that settler viewers have something to learn from his avowed allyship with the lives and lifeways of Indigenous peoples. Yet it is precisely this narrative contrast that constitutes a signature form of settler nativism, whereby settlers “retroactively narrate colonial relations as kin relations, in a way that at once assuages settler guilt/responsibility and grants settlers peace with themselves by implying that they bear a genealogical relationship to the peoples whose lands they never leave” (Morgensen, pp. 183-4). As the seeming exception, Glass merely reinforces the rule.
That both of Glass’ family members are murdered by white settlers so early on in the film, such that the storyline can move on with the more pressing business of Glass’ settler adventurism, is anything but trivial. To the contrary, it exemplifies what Tuck and Yang claim settler nativism is all about: “imagining an Indian past and a settler future” (p. 13). The lives of his wife and son are rendered past, recallable only through infrequent flashbacks to earlier instances of nostalgic kinship, one of which makes for the film’s opening sequence (pictured above). This conscious narrative choice, combined with the film’s failure to interrogate Glass’ own past provides a central condition of possibility for leaving his own settler identity unsettled and thus the security of his claim to the land unquestioned. Dallas Hunt’s reading of the totem transfer narrative in his recent review of Mad Max: Fury Road speaks to this seeming inseparability of settler nativism from narratives of settler development as they tend to unfold in literature and film:
The “Natives” in these texts transfer their knowledge to settlers so they can disappear from view and help white settlers in remedying the often times self-created ills that currently threaten their worlds…More than anything, these narratives make clear that there is ample room in these spaces for Indigenous knowledges and remedies, but little room for Indigenous peoples themselves.
It doesn’t require an interpretive leap of imagination to see that this narrative form is at work in The Revenant as well. After all, it is Glass’ acquisition of “invaluable Indigenous information” (including the physical transfer of a bear claw necklace from his dead son’s body to his own) that, in addition to distinguishing him as a seemingly exceptional settler, keeps him alive as he pulls up his moccasin bootstraps and individually (read: individualistically) traverses (read: conquers) the seemingly uninhabitable (read: uninhabited), apparently “lawless” (read: uncivilized) landscape of the frontier that he spends the entirety of the film trying to tame in an effort to secure his futurity therein.
At the level of Glass’ family relations in the film, settler nativism therefore serves to indigenize and thus legitimize his claim to settlement without becoming Indigenous himself (though as Jesse Wente writes in his review of the film, this doesn’t keep Glass from playing Indigenous dress-up). Yet the settler nativist narrative doesn’t stop there.
DiCaprio’s most prominent character foil, the once again ostensibly more American Fitzgerald (who longs to return to Texas, accent intact), further indigenizes Glass in this way, insofar as the former is presented as the “real” colonizer in the relationship, having murdered Glass’ son and so stirring the latter’s thirst for righteous revenge. There is actually a sense in which Glass’ paternal (read: patriarchal) relation to his son – one that he frequently and awkwardly stresses aloud in telling him “you are my son” (as though he is not entirely convinced) – makes Glass, if only by familial extension, an Indigenous victim of Fitzgerald’s genocidal impulses. This is captured in the chilling line uttered by Fitzgerald in the scene after he has just buried Glass alive: “you’re never sure if the Indians are dead”, bespeaking a logic of elimination that settler colonial states continue to celebrate in their pursuits of political-economic purity.
It would of course be absurd to accept these two characters’ seemingly stark differences in settler disposition at face value. Instead, we can ask: might Glass’ insatiable appetite for revenge (which he spends all of his energy and the entire film trying to fulfill) be read as a desire to do away with his own settler identity that he is so incapable of coming to terms with, despite its being the fundamental contradiction of his character? This reading of revenge as redemption from settler sin – clearing one’s colonial debt by means of murdering the colonizer without as opposed to unsettling the settler within – is practically parodied in the film’s final sequence, where the two characters stumble through the snow in lockstep before beginning their decolonial duel that pits a “well-intentioned” settler nativist against his colonizer alter-ego in a fight to the death. Fitzgerald then throws a misogynist insult at Glass that feminizes his son (and casually reinforces the gendered colonial violence depicted earlier in the film). Emasculated, Glass loses his temper and decides to strike the first blow. Thus commences the final scene of the 156-minute feature film of 2015: two white dudes duking it out as if the future of settler identity were on the line.
Far from being forced to actually confront his own expectation of entitlement to Indigenous lands and lives, Glass instead convinces himself to clear up any confusion that he or his viewer may (or may not) be having about the legitimacy of being entitled to such entitlement in the first place. This is precisely what makes Glass such an uncomplicated, unsurprising, and ultimately un-unsettling character. Despite how vulnerable he may be in the face of a grizzly bear or an avalanche (though, even then he seems decidedly invulnerable), he remains enthusiastically sure of himself from start to finish, bent on ensuring that Fitzgerald’s blood will be lost so his own life can be found (as the film’s slogan suggests). While it would be convenient to think of the storyline as a matter of individual revenge and nothing more, the settler colonial stakes of the film suggest otherwise. When Glass says of Fitzgerald before heading out to hunt him down, “He’s got everything to lose”, it doesn’t occur to him that he has just offered a deeply discerning description of himself. Front and centre in almost every single scene of a one (white) man survivor show whose superstar is more of a superhuman, Hugh Glass has nothing to lose but his power. In other words: he has everything to lose. As DiCaprio stares directly into the camera in the final shot of the film, we are reminded that the stakes of his survival are no laughing matter: the settler colonial nation-state depends upon it.
I write provocatively not because I believe this film is incapable of doing any justice whatsoever to historical reality or to Indigenous peoples (see, for example, Leo Killsback’s review of how this cinematic genre has changed with The Revenant), but because it is necessary to highlight the very real contradictions wrapped up in the manufacture and maintenance of white settler identity that exist at the centre of this film, along with the very real capital investments that are devoted to the performance and preservation of settler colonial narratives, investments so massive that they speak to the true crisis of legitimacy that white settler class interests rest upon. We shouldn’t find it so surprising that this smashing box office success devoted 135 million dollars to keeping Hugh Glass alive and has raked in over 380 million dollars worldwide in under a month since its release. Might there be a very real relationship between the settler power at stake in the film and the settler power of the Hollywood industry that in turn has something to do with settler anxiety on Turtle Island more generally?
The Revenant is an enormous exercise in the spectacle of settler self-persuasion, an exercise that cannot be read independently of the material economy of entertainment and commercial consumption in which it is embedded, the material economy of resource extraction and the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous lands that it requires, the preposterous profits produced by both of these economies, or the “pioneer” profiteers who pack these profits home in their pockets.
Of course, colonial capitalism and its racially-coded class system is chock full of co-existing contradictions. DiCaprio’s recent acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, in which he shares the award with “all the Indigenous communities of the world,” would certainly seem a case in point. Much has been said and written on the topic of what it means to be a genuine settler ally to Indigenous peoples, whether one is a settler environmentalist or a settler celebrity. As both, DiCaprio’s decision to use his prominent position of privilege at the podium has been both celebrated and criticized as an act of such allyship. Some have distinguished between using one’s privilege to speak for others and using one’s privilege to provide space for others to speak for themselves. Marlon Brando boycotted the Oscars in 1973 and had Sacheen Littlefeather reject the award on his behalf (though still using his words). Later that year in an interview, Brando commented on the crowd’s response: “They were booing because they thought, ‘This moment is sacrosanct, and you’re ruining our fantasy with this intrusion of reality.’” With another all-white nomination ballot in the actor/actress category at this year’s awards ceremony, it seems Oscar too has nothing to lose but his power.
So long as DiCaprio is being judged for the smoothness of his moves to innocence, he is certain to receive the sacrosanct golden statue for an impeccable performance. Regardless of what DiCaprio will say when he wins, we are still left with a serious question: if an uncompromising commitment to the project of decolonization means making oneself accountable to Indigenous self-determination at every turn, at what point will white settlers stop playing roles that come so easily to them, both on and off the screen? Moreover, at what point will white settler lives cease to be the focal point of a cinematic consideration that remains so overtly obsessed with manufacturing mega-projects designed to defend and thus naturalize a 500 year-old settler colonial script? If this script is ever going to be rewritten (since it is, after all, a script) and not merely reproduced, it will require that settlers commit to apprehending the concrete conditions that invest our class characters with the material and mentality that make our roles of power and privilege playable in the first place – roles that try to conceal the reality we find so frightening: that our power and privilege are nothing more and nothing less than the scandalous spoils of ongoing injustice.
K2 is a settler Canadian living on unceded Syilx territories of the Okanagan Nation. He can be followed on Twitter at @kontrakartograf
 The character of Hugh Glass is sure to make a favourable impression on the minds of many Euro-Canadians, insofar as the Canadian national imaginary has often been articulated in these decidedly oppositional terms – namely, neither American nor British, but rather a magnanimous multicultural identity with increasingly celebrated Indigenous roots (see, for instance, Saul, 2008). Glass’ character is a paradigmatic personification of the benevolent, “well-intentioned” peacekeeping pioneer that is so near and dear to the Canadian colonial consciousness. That such an identity is entirely class-unconscious and requires continual maintenance by the Canadian settler colonial state and its loyal settler subjects only further emphasizes the stakes of settler identity that are at work in the film.
Morgensen, Scott Lauria. “Queer Settler Colonialism in Canada and Israel: Articulating Two-Spirit and Palestinian Queer Critiques.” Settler Colonial Studies 2.2 (2012): 167-190.
Tuck, Yang and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society. 1.1 (2012): 1-40.
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