The Revenant – or as I’ve already heard it called, “the film that finally got DeCaprio his Oscar” – is, to a degree, what I thought it was going to be before I saw it, namely a harrowing tale of hardship and wilderness survival. But it’s significantly more than that. It’s part revenge story, part critique of unregulated economies, part commentary on fear, revenge and human nature and part exploration of man’s relationship with, and position in, nature. It manages to get so much out of a fairly straightforward plot that it really deserves to be recognised in its own right, rather than just the vector by which Leonardo DeCaprio finally got his Oscar.
The basic plot is simple enough; following a devastating attack on a trapping camp Hugh Glass (played by DeCaprio) flees with his son and seven other survivors. After being badly wounded in a grisly bear attack, during which he was rendered immobile and mostly mute, Mr Glass is left behind with two men and his son left to care for him until he inevitably dies from his injuries. One of these men, the impatient Fitzgerald, has no fondness for Glass and fears that the natives may be hot on their trail. He attempts to murder Glass, but is discovered and murders Glass’s half native son to avoid being caught. He then tricks the other man left to care for Glass into fleeing and abandoning Glass, half buried, to die. The rest of the film is almost half survival epic and half revenge story, as Glass suffers through a number of micro adventures and setbacks as he slowly recovers and makes his way back to town to wreak revenge on Fitzgerald.
As much as the plot is fairly simple in this regard, what really makes the film are its depictions of people, the landscape and the events along the way. The occasional break from the action of survival to beautiful shots of the snow-covered landscape contextualise all of the film as occurring in a wilderness which is bleak, uncaring and – while not necessarily unrelentingly hostile – is at the very least made up of a complex web of forces and events which, if not paid attention to, can serve as deadly traps to the intruder who naively stumbles upon them. In fact, almost the entire film is like this, to the point that certain readings might suggest that The Revenant is actually a story that occurs in a world where no one and nothing has free will, where every action is a consequence of some existing system or relationship being disturbed in some way. This can be seen everywhere in the film; the natives attack the trapping camp because they are looking for one of their own who was kidnapped, the bear attacks Glass because he unknowingly walks between her and her cubs (and stops attacking him when he no longer seems to be a threat, only to resume the attack when he again threatens her, perhaps indicating that nature is not infact hostile in its indifference to man, but merely hostile when meddled with). Even Glass himself begins to act to hunt Fitzgerald when his son is murdered. This theme continues through the film, almost to the point where while people are portrayed as acting for human reasons on human emotions, it almost seems that even people are portrayed less as persons, but more as forces, which respond to those who act upon them.
But this reading is just one of many, which is what makes the film so good; it opens itself to so many thought-provoking readings despite its superficially simple plot, and does so while never becoming dull or compromising its profoundly spectacular visuals. For example, what can be said of the film’s portrayal of suffering? Is it on the side of suffering, being random and pointless in an almost nihilistic way? Is the film more about suffering as purification or a way of paying for ones sins? What about its depictions of natives and the politics of the time, as well as the economics of the fur trade? Or even its numerous references to the spiritual, and the role of God? The Revenant is a film which manages to say a lot in few words.
Not only does it manage to provoke a lot of thought on a number of topics, but The Revenant should also be praised for its depiction of people. It is very easy to have a villian in a revenge story as pure, unreasoning evil. The Revenant, however, resists this temptation and instead gives every character, no matter how loathsome, an explanation for their actions, and a history which makes their actions seem reasonable to them. This is particularly noteworthy in its depictions of Native Americans, who are, in a move which seems both rare and welcome, depicted not as one homogeneous group, but a number of different peoples and nations with their own traditions, political structures, and histories. The Revenant resists the temptation to portray Native people as either savages or as the almost equally reductive “noble savage, instead portraying them as people, like everyone else, who act based on their history and circumstances. While I don’t feel confident in unreservedly praising the film’s depiction of Native Americans, it is certainly far better than I expected it to be.
A thing that I feel needs mentioning is the violence in the film. Before I went to see it, my grandmother called me and asked me if I was going to see it (I replied that I was). She urged me not to, as she found the violence too much to stomach and had to leave the cinema midway through the film. While I did not react as strongly to the violence as my grandmother, it is certainly there. Initially it is shocking, jarring and repulsive, and midway through the film there is one act which was particularly vile. By the end of the film the violence begins to seem almost cartoonish. Perhaps this is intentional, as while the audience is brought into the world of the film we are also desensitized to the violence of this world, as the characters we see seem to be. Overall I would say the violence is necessary. It is not gratuitous, it exists to show the ruthlessness and harshness of both nature and man. It is supposed to be shocking and repulsive and harsh, and without it the film would be profoundly different, almost definitely for the worse.
Should you go see The Revenant? Probably. It can be a bit grim at times, so if you can’t/don’t want to deal with that then don’t go to see it. However, if you don’t mind those aspects it’s a really good film.