An electrifying and gripping tale of one man’s journey back from the dead, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant finds an unexpectedly spiritual side to revenge.
The Lone Rangerby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilersWell, if revenge is a dish best served cold, it doesn’t get much cooler than this. Not only does Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant take place amidst the snow-driven plains all the way down the banks of the Missouri, but it’s also a quixotic hybrid of Iñárritu’s now-trademark cutless sequences of Birdman and a dazzlingly visual spirituality reminiscent of Terrence Malick – a much imitated stylishness that Iñarritu seems to capture in its purest form. And with a stellar cast including Hollywood hard-hitters Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson, The Revenant is a gripping action thriller, as arrows whistle though the air and find their mark with a ruthless crack or as DiCaprio’s scout Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear. And while The Revenant isn’t exactly a Western, much beyond its frontier setting, Iñarritu’s suspenseful and surprisingly spiritual yarn isn’t too far removed from those Hollywood classics of yore.
Having lost his wife (but survived a massacre) at the hands of US army troops, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) are enlisted with Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and his squad of 100 fur-trappers, hunting for beaver pelts in Arikara territory, North Dakota. When they’re attacked and their number decimated, it’s up to Glass to get the motley crew and their furs back to the safety of Fort Kiowa. But ravaged by a grizzly bear, Hawk is ripped to shreds and quickly becomes a burden to the hunters, who fear constant attack from the Ree as they struggle across snowy rivers, mountains and forests with a makeshift stretcher. But as Glass refuses to die, Henry appoints a delegation of Hawk, Bridger (Will Poulter) and mercenary Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to stay behind and give Glass a proper burial when the time comes. But when Fitzgerald becomes bored of waiting, he seizes the moment to hurry things along, asphyxiating Glass before being caught by Hawk. So, with Hawk promptly dispatched and Bridger hoodwinked with stories of a Ree attack, Glass is left for dead and with only one thing on his mind. Revenge.
It’s slightly disingenuous calling Iñarritu’s visceral adaptation of the Hugh Glass myth The Revenant, because really, he’s neither dead nor left for dead. But still, as we follow DiCaprio’s Glass on his torturous road back to health, scraping himself and his open wounds over ice and sealing his cuts with burning gunpowder, The Revenant becomes the latest addition to the film canon of suffering, with this natural born survivor walking his own via dolorosa, not unlike Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. To the point where it almost seems like Glass might be a cat with nine lives, somehow surviving an unstoppable rollercoaster of starvation, whitewater rapids and arrowfire. Still, Iñarritu seems hell-bent on shocking us – which certainly helps hustle The Revenant‘s overly extended run time along – sending Glass’s horse careering over cliffs and plummeting to its death, only for Glass to then eviscerate it, crack it open and hibernate in its warm carcass. But perhaps in Iñarritu’s universe, Glass’s ability to survive (where other lesser mortals all too easily fail) is proof of some godlike kind of worth.
With crow totems watching from the trees, and a glimmering sun or moon observing Glass’ fate with seemingly constant indifference, The Revenant takes on an undeniably spiritual undertow. It’s there in the forested vistas that celebrate the American wilderness like an Ansel Adams photograph. But it’s also there in Glass’s breath that steams up the camera lens before metamorphosing into clouds billowing through the sky. Or in the conquistador church a near-death Glass imagines – a kind of limbo where he can be reunited with his son, its precariously hanging bell clanging but eerily silent. Or in Glass’s visions of his wife, occasionally levitating like something out of Paranormal Activity, but a constant guide on his spiritual journey. But despite suggestions of a calvary and a second coming, Iñarritu’s spiritual take is decidedly pantheistic, Glass’ final rasp an entreaty to all gods – from Zeus to Jehovah.
Whether it actually means anything is anybody’s guess. But as DiCaprio stares directly into camera in the final scene, The Revenant presses its meaningfulness upon us. Perhaps it’s an entreaty for mercy; distancing itself from the moral righteousness of those earlier westerns, as Glass learns to leave revenge to a Higher Power. (Even if pushing a half-dead Fitzgerald downstream to the bloodthirsty Ree isn’t exactly leaving it in God’s hands). But by showing mercy towards the Arikara chief’s daughter Powaqa, Glass brokers a tentative peace. And there’s political currency to this metaphor for US policy, though not necessarily for Native Americans. (And while one might argue with Iñarritu’s portrait of the Arikara in The Revenant, it’s refreshing to see a tribe full-blooded and proud.) But rather, towards for all those other peoples the world over at the sharp end of American might. Or perhaps, after the almost incidental levitation of Birdman, it’s the evolution of Iñarritu’s narrative of suffering – present in all of Iñarritu’s films from Amores Perros to Biutiful – transformed into something altogether more sacred?
The Revenant is released on 15th January 2016 in the UK