With THE REVENANT, Alejandro González Iñárritu has taken the true story of early 19th-century frontier scout Hugh Glass, and admirably manipulated it into a spiritual journey of savage poetry. Glass’s story, rendered cinematically in the 1970’s by Richard Harris in MAN IN THE WILDERNESS, becomes much more here. Iñárritu uses the bare bones of the events, Glass being mauled by a grizzly bear and then living to tell about it after surviving on his own in the wilderness of South Dakota in the middle of winter, to consider nothing less than humankind’s relationship to the world at large. The characters become symbols; the narrative an allegory; the film a masterpiece. A brutal masterpiece that uses the dissonance of exquisite, ice-filled landscapes and extreme violence, closely observed, to make its point. The effect is to be simultaneously in a world of innocence, and in Dante’s ninth circle of hell.
The film starts with a scene of profound serenity. Water flows through bare trees and in this winter setting Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is hunting elk with his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). They are speaking Pawnee, the language of Hawk’s deceased mother, as they take the measure of the animal, and the shot they fire is, ironically, the last moment of peace that they will know. They are hunting for the trappers that Glass has been hired to guide through this wilderness. In their encampment, the last of the bloody pelts that the trappers have taken are being prepared, and that image of fresh blood, like many scenes of gore, will be repeated throughout the film, in different incarnations, but with a potent echo. Glass’ open wounds after the mauling, for example, will be recalled by the viscera of a buffalo taken down by wolves later in the story.
There is a point to this comparison, and it is more than just careful visual artistry. From the raid and slaughter by Native Americans that will leave only 10 trappers of the original 45 alive, to the mauling itself that Glass provokes by inadvertently finding himself between a mother grizzly and her cubs, to his abandonment by a Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a half-crazed trapper tasked by the expedition’s leader, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), to make what everyone agrees will be Glass imminent death as comfortable as possible, there is a pronounced cause-and-effect that governs the action. In this cycle, humankind is held in contrast to the rest of the natural world and found wanting. It is the only species that preys on itself, and the only species that kills for sport. By the end of Glass’ journey, the notion of our place in the food chain altered has been irrevocably altered, with humans toppling from the apex of the food chain and being rudely reminded they are nothing more than one link in that chain, and far from an exalted one.
Iñárritu introduces the traditional trope of Europeans failing to either respect or understand the inhabitants or land that they encounter and exploit, but he also introduces illuminating degrees of ignorance and conceit to that failing. Glass is the touchstone as the most integrated into this new land still making a near-fatal mistake to Fitzgerald, brutish in many sense of the word and incapable of higher reasoning is the nadir. In between are Captain Henry’s troubled humanity that cannot bear the burden of euthanizing Glass, and the betrayed humanity of Bridger (Will Poulter), who is forced by Fitzgerald to walk away from Glass, but not from his conscience. The startling trope is that Iñárritu includes the Native Americans in his vision of humankind’s Original Sin. More in tune with the natural forces around them, but no less willing to spill blood for revenge.
The action is gruesome at times. The point is not just to horrify, but to also demonstrate that anything is possible, that nothing is off limits, that safety is an illusion. The sense of suspense from the moment that an arrow flies through throats without warning, danger is a palpable character in the story, even behind the putatively safe walls of the regional fort, where the elements are kept at bay, but not human nature
Said sense of danger amplified by the scenes of carnage. The mauling takes five minutes of excruciatingly detailed screen time, the subsequent attempts at first aid are equally excruciating and equally detailed, including a self-cauterization prompted by Glass’ inability to swallow water because of the holes in his throat. In the foreground, Glass savagely tears the belly out of a living fish he has just caught and in the background are the sublime beauty of the snow-covered Rockies, co-existing without contradiction with this impromptu frontier sushi.
It is the savagery of a Renaissance painting of an arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian, and with the same import. Glass’ journey takes place on two planes. The material, where with eyes blazing with both fury and insanity he creeps his way across the miles to get revenge on Fitzgerald. The spiritual, where he finds himself emerging with those blazing eyes from his own grave, and subsequently from the ersatz womb that is the eviscerated abdomen of the dead horse into which he has crawled naked to survive the night. Glass has reversed the order of nature by sheer force of will. With this dispensation, he closes the cycle of violence that precipitated all the killing, and finds a sort of redemption that may, as he stares directly into our eyes, be more than he can assimilate.
There are many reasons we go to the movies. Sometimes for pure escapist entertainment. Sometimes for a provocative challenge to how we think about the world. Sometimes for an immersive experience about what It’s like to live a different life, or even a different reality. THE REVENANT fulfills all of those with a searing elements of magical realism that temper its fire-and-brimstone sermon with a melancholy compassion to which we might not be entirely entitled.