So I finally got around to seeing The Revenant last night. I enjoyed it, maybe not quite as much as Birdman though (that said, it was clearly intended to be more of a crowd-pleaser than Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s big Oscar winner). As I often do when I see an interesting film, I decided to Google it to see what sort of conversation was still on-going around it. The first entry on Google’s news feed really caught my eye though: The Revenant Calls for Critical Christian Response.
Having just watched the film, I find the notion of Christian critics considering The Revenant to be a very good film for Christian audiences to be a baffling notion. It’s about as pure an example of the revenge narrative as you can get, a concept which (while very popular amongst storytellers and audiences) is very much at odds with the Christian philosophy of radical enemy-love and “turning the other cheek”. The article agrees with me on this response, and also lists 10 films which are typically considered very “Christian” within the popular critical consensus:
- The Matrix
- The Tree of Life
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?
- American Beauty
- Fight Club
- The Lord of the Rings
- The Shawshank Redemption
- Saving Private Ryan
Now, aside from The Matrix, The Tree of Life and The Lord of the Rings, which are all bursting with Christian themes, many of these films seem like a stretch to me. I mean, The Shawshank Redemption is all about hope, but that’s hardly a theme that really resonates with damn near everyone (hence why it has been IMDb’s top rated film for close to a decade now). Saving Private Ryan is arguably a Christ metaphor if you twist it into a pretzel, but if for example I was asked to mark a paper based on this argument I’d have a hard time accepting the premise. And what the literal hell is Fight Club doing on this list? As much as I loved that film, it is far easier to argue that it is a Marxist film and/or satire of modern macho-masculinity than a Christian film. I have no idea where they even start that argument. I’m sure there are other films on there which are just as baffling (unfortunately, I haven’t seen (enough of) American Beauty, Magnolia or Braveheart to comment on them, but I have a hard time seeing Braveheart in particular as being a Christian narrative.
By the way, I should make it clear that I’m not exactly shitting on these films. I’m not so stupidly religious that I can’t enjoy a film on its own merits or outside of my convictions (hell, one of the more intriguing films I saw this year was The Witch, which is debatably Satanic). Again, I really liked The Revenant, but I’m not deluded enough to believe that my enjoyment of it should be a validation of my belief system, because within that context it was an incredibly ugly film. Are Christian critics arguing that it’s “Christian enough” because it has spiritual themes, a central character who “rises from the dead” and that the hero stays his hand at the end? That might actually be enough if the film didn’t completely subvert each of these criteria – the spiritual themes amount to ambigious visions of the hero’s deceased family, our “risen Christ” comes back to sow death and destruction upon the man who wronged him (which would arguably make him into an “anti-Christ”) and the stays his hand at the end, but in doing so not only doesn’t forgive his enemy, but hands him over to his other enemies, who proceed to scalp him alive. Yeah, some lesson learned there, eh?
Naturally, another part of the article that resonated with me was the authour’s questioning of the masculine-dominated Christian critical opinion. This is obviously coming into play with such selections as Fight Club, Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart, where violence and masculinity are the sources of power, rather than forgiveness and mercy (in fact, Upham’s big moment of character development in Saving Private Ryan comes when he guns down a German soldier after letting on live earlier in the film in the same scenario). This definitely seems to tie into the reception of The Revenant, which has absolutely no room for forgiveness in its heart and very much is a glorification of violence (again, not that I think this is necessarily a bad thing, I just don’t think it’s a Christian thing).
Of course, I also question where these “Christian critics” are coming from. It’s pretty well known that there’s a strong culture of violent retaliation amongst conservative Evangelicals in the US which we saw with the acceptance of the Iraq War, or the typical response whenever there’s a terrorist attack on the news (“let’s bomb those damned sand n*ggers back to the stone age!!!!”). Coincidentally, today is the 5th anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, a day which saw people literally out in the streets celebrating. In hindsight, the celebration was premature and The War on Terror was only going to get worse (in fact, The War on Terror was in itself an escalating factor in creating terror), so his death solved little. I can remember my own reaction at the time upon hearing the news and seeing all of the people celebrating over the death – wasn’t that a little barbaric in itself? Weren’t we so angry to begin with because we thought they were celebrating over killing our own people? It especially rang true when, just a month later, Jackass star Ryan Dunn killed himself and a passenger in a drunk driving accident, but people were crying that you couldn’t speak ill of the dead – to which I quipped that you couldn’t criticize the guy unless he killed another 3000 people along with him.
Anyway, the point here is that we, as a society, are obsessed with violence. However, as they say, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. If we perpetuate the cycle of violence, it only makes things worse – just look at the shitstorm that we created in Iraq and Syria for a current example. Revenge is fun on the big screen, but when it spills over into real life and begins to inform our belief systems, then it’s time for some introspection.