Analysis / Film & Television

“The Revenant” and Traumatic Brain Injury

The Revenant

The question of male violence is at an impasse in the United States right now. With the growing prevalence of technology and social media, images of police brutality are now immediately accessible in a way that mounts the almost 25-year-old Rodney King video as sadly par for the course. Ruby Ridge-wannabe militants can hold an honest-to-goodness standoff for a month in the name of anti-government protest while few people blink an eye. And mass shootings – at elementary schools, on campuses, in churches, at movie theaters, at holiday parties, on the street – are a way of life, so much so that my friends’ toddlers must go through active shooter training at their nursery schools. Washington remains impotent, and so we’re left with a lot of rhetoric in newsmedia regarding the “mental illness” that drives this behavior, and rarely the social, biological, or economic conditions that influence these diagnoses in the first place.

I recently found myself thinking about this issue in an unexpected place: the movie theater.

Oscar-nominated The Revenant has proven a divisive film; an achievement of unrelenting gore, increasingly implausible feats of human survival, and visceral, emetic immersion, I’m not surprised that many have found Alejandro Iñárritu’s epic hard to sit through. Personally, as a lover of both splatterpunk and survivalist fiction (and as a vestigial Leo fangirl), I wondered if this picture was made just for me. Yet, I think what was most memorable for me about this film were not the flashy moments (men chomping through bloody buffalo bits or climbing into a horse’s warm carcass), but rather the original approach Iñárritu and company take to establish their villain. This desperate bully played by Oscar-nominated Tom Hardy could have easily been, simply put, “a bad guy.” Instead, they have created an empathetic vision of a frustrated man continuously making bad decisions, including murder, until he becomes trapped in a morass of his making. Even more daringly, however, the filmmakers subtly imply a disability at play in his actions.

Hardy portrays John Fitzgerald, an indebted fugitive working the same fur-trapping expedition as Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist Hugh Glass. Early on, the audience becomes wary of the gravelly, nearly unintelligible Fitzgerald, when he insecurely puffs his feathers at Glass and the man’s half-Pawnee son, Hawk. The expedition’s captain, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) favors Glass for navigation after an Arikara ambush, and the few men who survive must follow a new and more challenging course to reach their destination. Threatened by Glass’ intelligence, high standing with the men, and Native-friendly background, Fitzgerald becomes progressively hostile toward him. When a bear seriously injures Glass and the group is forced to choose between carting his dying body through dangerous terrain or halting the venture to care for him, Fitzgerald and another young man take a monetary offer to stay behind with the intention of helping Glass recover or burying his corpse.

With his wild but feeling eyes, Hardy persuades the audience to sympathize with Fitzgerald’s pragmatic point-of-view. Obliged against his will to abandon a fortune’s worth of inventory in order to trudge through unfamiliar wilderness, hunted by a party of inexorable foes, and morally coerced into squandering precious resources on a dying nemesis, Fitzgerald convinces himself (and perhaps the audience) that a coup de grace is the only way he will make it through this juncture alive.  Deluding himself that Glass has consented to the act, he nearly succeeds in smothering the man when Hawk interrupts, and in their confrontation, Fitzgerald silences the boy forever with a knife. From there on, Fitzgerald gradually weaves a web of deceit not only to sway his companion to leave Glass for dead, but to conceal the murder and collect his reward.

It would be easy for me to feel pure contempt for Fitzgerald’s violent choices if not for a quiet campfire scene in which he removes his ever-present bandana, revealing a shocking skull disfigurement. Earlier in life he had been partially scalped by Natives and left to carry the physical and potentially neurological scars of that violent encounter. Over the years, more and more medical studies have begun exposing the long-term effects of emotional trauma on our response systems, impacting everything from cognitive processing to somatic functioning. Given the look and placement of the wound, I believe the filmmakers intentionally frame Fitzgerald as a victim of head trauma.

Depending on the injured area, a Traumatic Brain Injury (or TBI) can significantly alter one’s personality. (An example of which would be CTE, or chronic traumatic encepalopathy, a controversial disorder prevalent among football players and other athletes that has had its own place in the pop cultural zeitgeist as of late with the release of Will Smith-starrer Concussion and the premiere of American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson.)

Frontal lobe damage may increase a propensity for mood swings, violence, depression, impulse control problems, risk-taking, social disinhibition, and non-compliance with rules. The combination of Fitzgerald’s despairing, general agitation, impetuous aggression, and tendency for causing discord in a situation where everyone needs to remain unified stick out to me as potential symptoms for frontal lobe disorder.  According to one 1985 paper on the subject, “Frontal lobe damage seems to have an impact on divergent thinking, or flexibility and problem solving ability.” While his actions toward the Glass men are morally bankrupt, they also seem to display this type of alternative problem-solving.

This is not to condone his behavior or justification for murder. But I do commend the unique take on a villain who could have otherwise been depicted as merely sociopathic, racist, or driven solely by money. Instead, Iñárritu and his team have crafted a character who the audience can both condemn for these traits and also feel a modicum of compassion toward, depicting a man steered to corrupt rationale by his past suffering. In one of the final sequences, Glass comes upon Captain Henry, freshly slain by Fitzgerald, with a telltale bloodied and exposed skull at the hands of a man destined to reenact his own traumas. It’s a sad moment, and cements Hardy’s character as one of the most striking antagonists in recent memory.

By early next Monday morning we should all know whether The Revenant was able to pull off the feat of Best Picture at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony. With the highest number of nominations this year (twelve in total) and telltale precursor wins at both the Directors Guild of America Awards and the BAFTAs, it may still knock PGA Award-winning The Big Short of its little perch. And if it does, it will stand with some of the best films featuring dynamic villains that shock, terrify, and move us.

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