'The Revenant': When Men Began to Leave Their Mark
In the first few seconds of The Revenant, a subtle but effective visual trick clearly establishes the main motif of this movie.
For a few seconds of tense calm, we see a vast and soothing landscape of what is now known as Montana. It's a place evidently dominated by nature, where the human footprint is almost nonexistent.
However, when the first two humans finally enter the shot, they look like giants. What looked like giant trees and an immense river, end up being small trees in an ankle-wetting little creek. Besides that, these humans are quietly hunting an elk. They're definitely starting to leave their mark.
The Revenant is a biopic—with many licenses—of the survival experience of the frontiersman, fur trapper, and explorer Hugh Glass (played masterfully by Leonardo DiCaprio) in 1823. But in the bigger picture, this tale is about the beginning of the savage capitalism that reigns in the United States and in the vast majority of the world.
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu takes advantage of the setting of the United States before having, well, united states, to paint a picture of the colonial, proto-capitalism taking place in the country that would end up becoming a symbol of the dominant economic system on the planet.
In this pre-gold rush setting, one of the biggest commercial activities was fur trapping. The explorers, or "trappers" developed their activity in a natural environment that, evidently, was hostile to the predatory invasion.
On top of that, indigenous civilizations, although already exploited and subdued, continued to apply violent active resistance against their exploiting invaders.
One of the fiercest criticisms of the capitalist system today focuses on its almost-automatic drive to pollute and devastate non-renewable natural resources in order to accumulate wealth more quickly. In that sense, The Revenant has an obvious pro-environmental message.
During several moments of The Revenant, Glass carries the symbolic burden of being the man right in the middle of two systems in conflict; barbarism and civilization. A man conflicting with his desire of having communion with nature and his apparently inherent disruptive predator nature. That's why, as a victim of this conflict that surpasses him in many ways, Glass doesn't stop receiving emotional and physical blows.
A human kills his wife. He's mauled by a bear. His half pawnee son is killed in front of his eyes by a racist. He almost drowned in a river. He literally spends the night inside a horse's carcass to survive the cold. He flees from a group of humans while maintaining his own personal hunt for another one. For a big chunk of this story (coincidentally when he's most immersed in nature's hostility), Glass even loses the ability to speak, one of the traits that make him human.
Yes, The Revenant is a revenge movie. However, Glass's motivations, or at least the elements that give him mental comfort and perseverance, are noble. Glass's philosophy is an interesting hybrid between union and family love and communion with nature. All partly because his wife was pawnee.
That's why, in difficult times, Glass always remembers the words of encouragement from his absent wife:
“As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.”
His son Hawk, also a victim of the clash of the systems, reminds him of the mental image at some point:
“Can you hear the wind, father? Remember what mother used to say about the wind? The wind cannot defeat the tree with strong roots”
And then there's the villain of the story, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). To a large extent, Fitzgerald represents the dark side of capitalism in all its splendor: He's cruel, racist, selfish and is only focused on his economic well-being, to the point of murdering anyone who stands on his way to achieving it.
But to a greater extent, Fitzgerald is also an ignorant victim of his circumstances. In the heat of a campfire, Fitzgerald talks about the influence of his main male role model, his father, and how he used to be a pragmatic, not-spiritual-at-all man. His father, he recalls, was on some expedition when he was attacked by Comanches. He managed to survive the attack but was left alone. He almost died of starvation, until he found a squirrel in a vulnerable state. For him, that squirrel was God. His hunger and despair made him never doubt that that had been an act of God. He found God in that squirrel. And he then killed it and ate it. Zeus killing Cronos. A man eating his god.
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Fitzgerald is then his father's perfect son. He is God's ideal creation and, therefore, all his acts are justified within the "natural order" he claims to have. That's why he doesn't stop mentioning God to justify his selfishness: “God giveth, God taketh away” he says, when he sees Glass after the bear attack. “The way I see it, I done saved your life twice now, boy... I ought' to be God to you.” He tells Bridger when his decisions are challenged, “The good Lord got us on a road whether we choose it or not."
His same animosity against the natives of the region led him to suffer a horrific episode, in which some Rees supposedly half-scalped him before, for some reason, letting him free.
This, coupled with the above, has turned Fitzgerald into a cruel, frightful creature whose resentment, ego and racism are lethal.
Iñárritu, inspired by his own experiences and the increase of the current xenophobic climate in the United States, decided to make racism a fundamental theme in this film.
For Iñárritu, one of the main fuels behind racism and xenophobia is capitalist culture. The false sense of belonging to some tradition, the self-centeredness of believing oneself superior and, above all, the wrong belief that different people are dangerous to your economic well-being.
Racism is the main engine that moves the shadow in The Revenant.
Fitzgerald antagonizes anyone different from him. Even Glass, for being "a savage lover." His anger born with his own half-scalping even leads him to emulate that cruel practice in one of his victims. In part perhaps because he wanted to framed Arikaras of the murder (which, of course, is still racism), and, in the main picture, to follow the chain of resentment.
In the end, Glass manages to get his revenge. It has cost him everything, even his life (we think), even though he claims to have lost everything already. There's no satisfaction. It was just an act of violence that it had to be done. There was no other option in his human nature seriously wounded by another creature.
However, Glass finds wisdom in communion with nature. Remembering the line “revenge is in God’s hands, not mine,” Glass doesn't make the final blow, but he lets Fitzgerald die at the hands of a stoic Arikara group who were watching them from across the river.
In the end, everything is self-conviction. Maybe self-deceit. Glass knew that Fitzgerald was mortally wounded and that the Arikara would finish the job. But he still found peace with his decision.
It makes sense. Doesn't a big part of spirituality and faith depend precisely on seeing and interpreting what we want to see?
A "revenant" is somebody that's back from the dead. Glass is a borderline zombie throughout the whole ordeal. Fitzgerald also survived a deadly encounter. But, above all, Glass is a "revenant" because he was able to find peace with his—sometimes conflicting—nature.
© 2019 Sam Shepards