I think a lot of us heard something about Hugh Glass sometime after Michael Punke’s novel The Revenant came out about a decade ago. I certainly heard the story about the man who was torn in half by a bear, put back together, left for dead, and crawled six million miles just so he could kill the guys who left him. And sure, a lot of movies are about revenge, but how the hell do you turn that into a film?
One way is to give the project to Alejandro González Iñárritu, hot off of turning a person’s state of mind into an aesthetic in Birdman, and reteaming him with Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the masters of showing insane events from one person’s point-of-view. That’s a good start, what gets them the rest of the way? Well, a script that changes events in smart ways and good performances, of course.
The Revenant is set in the harsh west, the scary, untamed American wilderness of the early 19th Century. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is guiding a band of trappers led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), a man with utmost respect for Glass’ expertise. Their group includes Glass’ Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), another boy, roughly the same age, named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and the guy who disagrees with everything Glass says, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). The trappers are attacked by an Arikara war party and forced to book it back to the nearest fort, which leads to new route choices, which eventually leads to Glass ending up between a bear and her cubs.
There’s no coincidence that the bear which mauls Glass is trying to protect her offspring, one thing The Revenant is about is a parent’s instinct to protect their child. We’ll soon learn that the leader of the Arikara is looking for his daughter, who was kidnapped by white men. Similarly, Glass’ great motivation throughout the film is his son, who he is ready to die to protect. It’s a safe choice, since revenge movies about dudes trying to save/avenge their wives/sons/daughters have a long track record of success in Hollywood, but I wonder if what could have been a pure story of survival needed to be turned into this.
Plus, it’s not that The Revenant is even solely about the toxic nature of revenge. This movie has a loftier ambition: to show just how hard it is for humans to survive in nature. We forget how powerful the earth is, we romanticize it – pretty flowers and sunsets and all that. When we speak of nature’s danger, we focus on disasters like floods or earthquakes. But even just cold of winter was enough to kill people for pretty much all of human history. During one pivotal scene, a character is shot to death and then immediately an avalanche falls in the background, as if mother nature is roaring “you people have nothing on me.”
An adventure this big deserves to be seen on the big screen, and that’s the legacy of The Revenant to me. As much as I respected to work done by DiCaprio and Hardy, it was the commitment to filming outside using only natural light that wowed me the most. That I think this is the best shot movie in a year that Sicario came out is hopefully a testament to how well Iñárritu and Lubezki honor the old film axiom “show, don’t tell.” They show us a harsh world that we tried to hide from in our apartments, malls, and parks.
Life is bleak and short and hard and it can get ripped away from you in an instant unless you’re willing to fight to hold onto it. I love a lot of stories that try to tell us that there’s a beauty in that, but this is the opposite. The Revenant shows that it’s an ugly, hopeless struggle. You have to measure yourself against that fact. Does it make you want to quit, or does it make you want to fight even harder?