This review has spoilers, for which you will thank me if you’re faint of heart.
Despite all its shiny Oscars, I can’t recommend that anyone watch The Revenant. As Michael G. McDunnah put it on The Unaffiliated Critic, “It's as if Ansel Adams had shot a snuff film, or if Terrence Malick helmed a live-action Wile E. Coyote cartoon.”
The violence that frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, grunting his way to a long-awaited Oscar) suffers is as graphic and frightening as any horror movie. In fact, I’d place The Revenant in the microgenre of Western ghost story, along with Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Ghost Westerns feature a tormented white, male protagonist who must avenge himself so his ghost can rest. Often, he’s aided in his quest by an indigenous person, for whom the interaction never ends well.
Death after death
Hugh Glass dies several deaths in this movie. The first, seen in flashback, is when his wife’s Pawnee village is destroyed by American soldiers. Afterwards, he tells his injured son, Hawk, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe . . . keep breathing.” But Hawk lacks his father’s taciturn tenacity, and Glass’s protectiveness earns the scorn of other white men on their furtrapping expedition, especially John Fitzgerald (played with psychopathic perfection by Tom Hardy).
The opening scene, shot in one of Alejandro Iñárritu’s trademark continuous takes, depicts a battle between the trappers and Arikawa Indians. The oppressive sense of impending ambush was reinforced by 360 degree pans and looming, claustrophobic trees. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is a master (he won the Oscar this year, making him the first cinematographer to win the award three years in a row). I was immersed in those 12 eternal, real time minutes of murder, and I profoundly didn’t want to be.
Glass attempts to guide the party to safety, but Fitzgerald vociferously objects. When he removes his hat, we see why Fitzgerald’s so virulently racist. He’s been partially scalped, and the PTSD from that has driven him mad.
Another protective parent
Scouting ahead, Glass encounters bear cubs, whose mother mauls him for five of the longest minutes in cinematic history. Glass is left in ribbons beneath the dead bear, whose cubs will now surely die in the harsh winter. The group’s commander, Captain Henry (the ubiquitous Domhall Gleeson), asks Fitzgerald to stay behind with Glass, Hawk, and the young Bridger, to give Glass a decent burial when he dies.
Fitzgerald proposes a deal — he’ll save Hawk but ditch Glass. Glass agrees but Hawk protests, so Fitzgerald remorselessly guts him. As a parent, I was in hell with Glass, impotently witnessing his beloved son’s murder. Fitzgerald buries Glass alive, bullying Bridger into going along, after which Bridger departs.
When Glass pulls himself from the ground and lays his head on Hawk’s frozen chest, he swears not to leave the dead boy. But he still has breath in him, so, like a zombie, he shambles through the bleak, colorless landscape, wearing the pelt and claws of the bear he killed, totem of a parent who failed to protect his young. He encounters another aggrieved father, chief of the Arikawa, whose daughter, Powaqa, has been kidnapped by French trappers, and barely escapes.
Pawnee Hicuk rescues Glass and treats his wounds. Like Nobody, the native man who helps Johnny Depp’s William Blake in Dead Man, Hikuc’s reward for his kindness is death. He’s hanged by the French with the ironic sign On est tous des sauvages dangling from his neck: We are all savages. Who? All Indians? All white men? Humans? Yes.
An unbelievable escape
Healed, Glass saves Powaqa, but they encounter the Arikawa. To avoid them, Glass drives his horse over a cliff, killing the horse but miraculously not himself. My willing suspension of disbelief frayed as Glass used a pine tree as a cushion, until I remembered that this whole movie was a ghost story. Glass pulls a Luke-Skywalker-on-Hoth, disembowels his horse, disrobes, and slips in for the night.
The next morning, a naked, bloody revenant is born of that corpse. At Fort Kiowa, Fitzgerald’s crimes are revealed, and not long after, the ghost of Hugh Glass arrives. He and Henry pursue the fleeing Fitzgerald through the snow. All humanity lost, Fitzgerald scalps Henry, but is ambushed by Glass, whom he believed was dead, rising up to confront him.
Perplexed by his rage
Fitzgerald is perplexed at Glass’s transcendent rage. After all, they had a deal, which Hawk broke. He taunts Glass, sneering “You came all this way for your revenge. Well you enjoy it, Glass, ’cause there ain’t nothing gonna bring your boy back.” Glass recites in Pawnee, “Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine,” and slips Fitzgerald into the water, where he is borne by the current to the Arikawa. There, his long-delayed scalping is completed, and Fitzgerald dies in the manner he feared the most.
Powaqa, reunited with her father, rides past Glass. The Arikawa are also ghosts, soon to be obliterated from the earth. But at least for now, one parent’s heart is whole. Glass sees a final vision of his wife, and then breaks the fourth wall, staring straight into the audience’s eyes. His breath is still audible after the screen goes black.
Horror transformed to poetry
Iñárritu deserved his win as best director for elevating 156 minutes of horror into visual poetry. The Revenant couldn't be further from the snappy dialogue of Birdman, but his theme, that some men outlive their capacity for joy, forms a through line. Both Riggan Thompson and Hugh Glass lose their children and die (perhaps literally, certainly figuratively). Only by abandoning their disintegrating selves can they hope to attain transcendence.
However, I’m glad it didn’t win best picture. No matter how beautifully delivered, The Revenant left a psychic bruise. It's a tone poem about the hell a parent suffers at the loss of a child, especially when that parent has only himself to blame. The lust for revenge is a form of denial: the child is still gone. There is no greater pain, and this movie surely made me feel that.