Environment and Emotion in The Revenant: A Cognitive Approach

Abstract: This paper investigates the role of the environment in cuing spectator emotions in The Revenant. In order to analyze how the environment is portrayed to evoke emotional responses, this article utilizes a cognitive approach toward film. One important way in which this process works is through the protagonist’s experience of his surroundings. By following Hugh Glass on his journey through the wilderness, the viewer shares his experience of it and responds emotionally in a congruent way: with terror, fear, and compassion as well as with curiosity and genuine interest in nature. However, The Revenant additionally encourages a different set of emotions toward the wilderness that are not connected to Glass’s fate or desires. Spectators are invited to feel emotions toward the environment per se, both in The Revenant and in real life. Cutaways to fascinating shots of unspoiled wilderness invite contemplation about the human impact on natural life and the lack of willingness to change harmful behavior ever since the beginnings of environmental exploitation as depicted in The Revenant. The latter emotions can nevertheless not be regarded as independent from the narrative but rather as part of the cinematic experience, since they are evoked within the context of the film.

The “true power of cinema: visual story-telling [...] is [at] the very heart of moving-pictures as an art,” says director Alejandro G. Iñárritu in an interview about The Revenant (Hainey). Even without any knowledge of the film, this quote already reveals much about it. The protagonist’s dramatic quest for survival is a highly aesthetic experience. In The Revenant (2015), Hugh Glass is part of a fur-trapping expedition to the American West in the 1820s. After Glass is severely wounded by a grizzly bear, his half Native American son Hawk and two other trappers stay behind with the promise to take care of him as long as needed. Due to Glass’s critical injuries, his colleague Fitzgerald—who turns out to be the main antagonist—tries to kill him in order to be able to move on. Yet his son witnesses the scene and desperately attempts to save his father. Thereupon, Fitzgerald murders Hawk in front of Glass before he buries the latter alive in the forest and sets out to rejoin the expedition group. Afterward, Glass is driven by an enormous will to survive and avenge the death of his son. Spectators follow him on his journey through the merciless depths of the wilderness with its unknown territory, harsh coldness, and dangerous animals until the final encounter with Fitzgerald and Glass’s realization about the futility of revenge.

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