The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines revenant as “one that returns after death or a long absence.” Citing the Random House Dictionary, Dictionary.com goes a step farther and calls it “a ghost.” The Revenant is certainly an appropriate title for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film: its burly-man protagonist, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), literally comes back to life after a bear attack nearly kills him. His resurrection, however, is only the beginning of the story.
While hunting for pelts somewhere in the Northern Plains States, a crew of trappers is attacked by Native Americans. Most of the crew is killed—brutally—but a few survivors, including Glass and his half-native son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), escape on a boat. Glass knows the terrain better than anyone, and assumes the lead as the men abandon the boat and head back to camp on foot—an undertaking no one is thrilled about. Virulent crew member John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who was scalped by Indians in the past, goes along with the plan but proves to be an adversary of Glass and a general pain in the ass. After a grizzly bear mauls Glass and leaves him essentially paralyzed on a makeshift stretcher at the mercy of the crew, Fitzgerald volunteers to stay behind with Hawk and Bridger (Will Poulter)—quite literally a babe in the woods—and either bring Glass to camp or bury him when he dies. See where this is going?
Based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, The Revenant is billed as a ‘revenge’ story. While revenge definitely drives the drama, the story is really about survival. The Revenant poses the age-old but ever interesting existential question: how are humans any different from other animals? Civilization and savagery are depicted here, often as the same thing. Glass and his son represent a dichotomy, occupying a middle ground between the two. Glass even looks like an animal as he walks through the snowy wilderness, furs piled high on top of him, and fights his way through various attacks, including his own sickness. A band of French trappers are neither mannerly nor enlightened in their conduct. The camp certainly is no model of humanity.
While God comes up many times, I see God as beside the point here; He (or She) is presented as a by-product of something more basic. The analogies to God—a tree, a squirrel that is shot and eaten, and a bombed out church—do not convey a sense of permanency or power. The answer I got as to what differentiates humans from other animals is our concept of justice, or karma: we all get what’s coming to us in the end.
The Revenant is long, deliberately slow, extremely violent, and very gory. In fact, it plays out like a big budget, artfully done video game: we are right there with Glass as we move through treacherous terrain and sudden attacks from man, beast, and the elements alike. We gather items—a gun, a canteen, a horse—for whatever comes next. The sound of arrows whizzing by and bullets hitting bodies is loud and clear. A large part of understanding The Revenant, though, is in its brutality. DiCaprio is good, but I thought Hardy stole the show.