Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu (of Birdman fame)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio begging for an Oscar as leading man Hugh Glass; Tom “I didn’t even realize it was him until the credits” Hardy as pragmatic, cynical opportunist John Fitzgerald; and Domhnall “wait is that General Hux” Gleeson as Captain Andrew Henry.
Also Notable: Will Poulter as inexperienced expeditioner Bridger, and Forrest Goodluck as DiCaprio’s Pawnee-born son, Hawk.
The Story: Hugh Glass is an American frontiersman who, after years living with a Pawnee tribe, now serves as a guide for American fur trappers hunting in the region. An attack by Ree natives incurs heavy casualties and forces the group to change route. Glass, scouting ahead, is mauled by a bear and, due to the difficulty transporting him up the snow-covered mountain, eventually left for dead by his men. He survives. His son is murdered before his eyes. He becomes an unstoppable determinator survivalist fueled by vengeance who cauterizes his own neck wounds and escapes from a blizzard by sleeping in the carcass of his poor tauntaun. Err… horse.
So I saw The Revenant on vacation about two weeks ago, literally two days before the Snowstorm of Doom trapped me in a house I had to shovel out of for three days straight. Who wants to spend relaxing vacation time watching a desperate struggle for survival and vengeance that also foretells the despair of winter’s coldest weather? Apparently me. (Relevant note: I thrive in heat; give me August humidity over the cold any day.) To be honest, I was hoping to see it again before putting anything down on paper; the film as a whole hit some odd notes in my first watching that I wanted to test against a viewing with more perspective. Unfortunately, that was not to be, so my thoughts are somewhat tentative and speculative.
To start, I must first admit that I do not think Hugh Glass will be DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning role. While the character’s struggles are incredible, and Leo portrays them masterfully, I found the character itself to be somewhat disappointing. Part of this is possibly because I had a hard time seeing past DiCaprio to accept the character; talking with my friends, I inevitably refer to the character as Leo rather than Glass. But beyond that, the character simply doesn’t have an opportunity to develop much. His story is highly cyclical: near-death experience, survival, sympathetic softening moment, repeat. Leo gets to express pain and desperation, is awestruck by nature, grunts a bit, and absolutely nails a raspy “my throat was literally shredded by bear claws what do you expect of me?” voice. There’s just not as much breadth allowed to Leo’s acting as I think is necessary to show his acting strength. In the last moments of the film, Leo has a foreshadowed revelatory moment that finally breaks his character’s stasis, but even the resultant change of heart aligns with the compassion he consistently shows through the film. In terms of near-silent protagonists, I cannot help but compare it to Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky from Mad Max: Fury Road and consider Max the more nuanced and developed of the two.
Even within his own film, Hugh Glass struggles to stand out against the machinations of the manipulative Fitzgerald (also played by Tom Hardy – I might have a thing for Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald provides a survivalist foil to our man Leo, but where Leo is a determinator who knows his way around the woods, Fitzgerald is a wily opportunist. He’s on the expedition for the money, and he’ll do whatever’s necessary to survive with maximum profits, including murder and being the one to ultimately abandon Glass. Fitzgerald’s story is a power struggle focusing on deception and lies, but he also has a sense of honor, admittedly deficient, that establishes a more complex character than the “greedy sociopathic bastard” caricature he could’ve been. Will Poulter’s Bridger, the most inexperienced in the company, is drawn into Fitzgerald’s web of lies against his will, and for what screen time he has, the character struggles with a new vision of the world that refuses to match his ideals. Meanwhile, Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Andrew Henry, in charge of the company, is a man at war with the decisions he must make. He agonizes over the men killed in battle and the need to abandon Glass, but he also knows how to kill and burns with righteous anger when faced with injustice. He is the quintessential good man in a dark world. Compared to Leo, these three, with the possible exception of Fitzgerald, are all supporting roles, yet they offer complex struggles beyond the desperate survivalism that Leo sometimes seems confined to.
All that being said, the film does hold an interesting thesis. Artfully directed and edited, the film carefully juxtaposes the gritty, desperate battles of mankind with wide, awe-inspiring shots of nature. Sunsets and sunrises, towering snow-capped mountains, and thundering herds of bison hunted by wolves; these shots you would expect in a nature documentary are carefully layered into a film about one man’s quest for survival and vengeance. Like a sinner entering a cathedral, the sweeping vistas make this classic tale feel small and petty. By meshing these images, tied into the revelation offered by Leo at the very end as he chooses to not kill Fitzgerald for revenge (“Vengeance is in the hands of God”), the film suggests the relevant unimportance of humanity and its squabbles. Our fight for survival is meaningless compared to the size and grandeur of the world we live in, and we are so often caught up in individual dramas that we rarely see the wider picture. Nature becomes divinity as with Leo’s final revelatory declaration he pushes the still-living Fitzgerald into a river, giving him a chance for survival if he escapes the current.
But here’s where it gets tricky. Ree natives are downriver, and Leo watches as they fish Fitzgerald out of the water and kill him. So are the Ree an act of nature, and by extension divinity, exacting the vengeance granted them through Leo’s mercy? Throughout the film they are treated as an inevitable, relentless, destructive force, clearly human in their motives, but also marked as Other in a way that aligns them with the forces of nature that line up to take a shot at Leo (e.g. the bear attack and the blizzard). Thus, their execution of Fitzgerald could be considered a karmic nod to Leo’s compassion and surrendering of vengeance. This interpretation suggests the presence of a higher, equalizing force, that if we give up thoughts of malice and violence, and strive to see the greater picture of the world, then the world will work for us. In a film that casts nature as divinity, a valid environmentalist message can also rationally follow.
It should, however, be noted that Leo earlier assisted Powaqa, a daughter of the Ree, in escaping from abuse at the hands of the French. Ree involvement in the battle between Leo and Fitzgerald, viewed solely as a product of people paying a debt owed, in this light becomes a final blight of human pettiness in the face of divine revelation. Leo has relinquished any claim to human life outside of his own into the jurisdiction of nature. And having done so, Fitzgerald is promptly slaughtered, another link in the chain of death that binds humanity to shortsightedness. Leo sits as the Ree file past him. And then he is alone, and he breathes. Possibly at this point he even relinquishes his own life, transcending humanity in death, but the ending of the film is ambiguous as to his final fate. (Yes, I’m going to ignore the true history of Hugh Glass because works of art may have a basis in fact, but their presentation as art gives them lives of their own.)
While these two interpretations offer slightly different messages, a vital component is the realization of life and existence on a grand scale outside of oneself. To a large extent, The Revenant is trying nothing more than to poke a hole in humanity’s giant ego. It says, “Look at yourself, creatures of desperation, and now look at the world.” On a wide enough scale, anything can appear an ant. And for humanity, that scale is simply the world we live on.
Also, the CGI bear looked like a giant puppy whenever it was standing over Leo panting, and not actively ripping into him. I wanted to snuggle the giant puppy-bear. I am ashamed of this fact.