The saying goes that we never know what we’re capable of until the chips are truly down. It’s as though when we are being mercilessly beaten, there comes a point where the blows are only strengthening our resolve like a blacksmith to an iron. However, the fallacy of that belief is that these additional capabilities might not actually matter. Sure, they may drive us to do the unthinkable – to neglect all humanity and draw instead from pure animal instinct. However, once we get to that point, we must then respect a larger inescapable truth: that we are naturally and cosmically insignificant.
We might believe we have evened the score for a moment, but in the grand scheme of things, we are still destined to lose the game in the end.
THE REVENANT is the story of a party of hunters and trappers traversing the Midwestern frontier in the early 1800’s. Led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the platoon faces an early skirmish with a tribe of natives costing them much of their hunting yield and many lives. Once they reach safety, there is dissension over how to proceed. Do they try to replace the furs they have lost? Do they keep running hoping to further evade the encroaching natives? Just how much loss is the group willing to take on?
While seemingly clear of danger for a few moments, things quickly go from bad to worse for a trapper named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). While hunting, Glass finds himself between a mother bear and her cubs, promptly getting mauled within an inch of his life. His gunshots bring his group to the scene and despite their best medical efforts, it doesn’t seem like Glass is long for this world. However, with the natives still on their trail, the group has to keep moving…and it eventually becomes clear that tending to Glass is putting everybody’s lives in jeopardy.
Cpt. Henry makes the call: Glass is to be kept in one spot, watched over, and if-necessary properly buried by two men. Though Glass’ son vows to stay by his side, two more men are required. So it goes that Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald (Will Poulter and Tom Hardy)are tasked with looking after Glass.
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald doesn’t exactly have what one would call “good bedside manner”. Selfish and mercenary, he distracts Bridger, kills Glass’ son, and buries Glass just deep enough…but all the same not nearly deep enough. Telling Bridger that Glass is “as good as dead”, they take Glass’ rifle, leave him a canteen, and set-out to catch up with the hunting party.
Thing is, vengeance is a powerful thing. It can lead a person to survive, to endure, and to find satisfaction. Or, in the case of Hugh Glass, it can cause him to drag his crippled body from that shallow grave, then slowly push, pull, beg, borrow, limp, stumble, and crawl across the frontier to catch up with Fitzgerald…and equal the score.
THE REVENANT is not for the faint of heart. It is stark, patient, unflinching, epic, emotionally intense, violent, gruelling, and primal. It is emotionally draining both from its raw violence and from its chilling beauty.
At the centre of it, DiCaprio transfixes us with the raw determination that can drive a person. For long stretches of the film, we fixate on the sounds of his gasps and grunts. We find ourselves chilled with the sounds of his gasps and grunts, and rapt by the desperation they exude. One look into Glass’ eyes and we can see just how violently obsessed he is. He is consumed with surviving, consumed with killing. What has happened to him isn’t right and yet it seems to have stripped much of the humanity from him. The result is a performance that is almost animalistic: like a wounded animal limping slowly back to its den, convinced restoration lays within.
What allows Leo’s performance – and likewise Glass’ struggle – to hit us with maximum impact is the broad scope that THE REVENANT chooses to employ. While there are many closely cropped images of our heroes and villains, the bulk of this movie is spent at arm’s reach…allowing us to understand their place on the landscape. At times, they are waist-deep in icy rapids, other times clinging precariously to snow-covered ravines that rise on dangerously steep angles. During one especially memorable moment, an avalanche can be seen cascading in the distance. In short, every desperate act is made that much more desperate by what we see of the environment around them.
Perhaps the most striking image (in a film laced with striking imagery) comes at the end of the second act. Glass’ journey brings him to the remains of a chapel. The roof is missing, the pews and altar long since demolished, its walls become more gaping the higher up one looks. The structure itself seems less like a house of worship and more like a broken stone hand…held out in a supplicant gesture. The church bell in the spire swings violently in the wind – but with its clapper destroyed in the mayhem, its violent swings are also silent gestures.
The place is trying to scream out its call to prayer…but its vocal chords were ripped out long ago.
The reason this image cuts so deeply is because it cuts to the core of THE REVENANT’s parable about our place in the world around us. We like to believe we’re in control; that we can augment nature to our needs, flourish from it, and even be grateful for it. We like to believe that if we understand the wind and rapids that we can sail down the river and make good time. The truth is that’s just vanity. Creation doesn’t care about what we think, how much we need, or how grateful we are. It doesn’t believe in justice or balance. The world doesn’t surround us to act as provider – we are here at its mercy.
The laws of man might allow for vengeance and repercussion, but the laws of nature are far less accommodating. In the eyes of creation, we are all equally insignificant.