“As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.”
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant fits all the qualifications of a big film: star-caliber acting from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and others; astounding cinematography in gorgeous settings; and a story that seems to be larger than life. The film is “inspired by” the legendary life of Hugh Glass, a 19th Century frontiersman about whom various stories, some likely true, but others apocryphal, arose and were embellished by the newspapers of the day.
The film begins as a trapping expedition lead by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is preparing to return back to civilization. After being attacked by Native Americans, they must make their way back over mountains. Glass (DiCaprio) knows the area and convinces the Captain of the plan to get back over strong objections from John Fitzgerald (Hardy). Along the way Glass is attacked and mauled by a grizzly. Along with Glass’s son, Fitzgerald and a young man volunteer to stay with Glass while the others go on. Soon, however, Fitzgerald kills Glass’s son, and convinces the other man they must leave the dying Glass to his fate. But Glass does not die. Rather he battles through recovering from his injuries and slowly makes his way back where he will have revenge on the man left him for dead and killed his son.
On the superficial level, this journey back is a marvel of the human will to survive. From the time he crawls out of the grave Fitzgerald threw him in, Glass must struggle through each day, each step. He survives not only the grizzly attack that initially injures him, but even more trials along the way: waterfalls, warring Native Americans, starvation, and winter.
But there is also a sense in which this is a journey to humanity. Early on in this Odyssey, it seems that Glass survives by reverting to primal, animal behavior. In press notes, Iñárritu says, “Glass’s story asks the questions: Who are we when we are completely stripped of everything? What are we made of and what are we capable of?” I was struck to the way that he seemed very like the bear that had mauled him: wearing the bear skin, grunting in a similar way, catching and eating raw fish. But there are also events that remind him that there is more to his life than just a will to survive. One of the best of those events is the simple act, along with a Native American companion, of catching snowflakes on his tongue.
One of the strongest emotions that drives him is the memory of his love from his son and wife (who was Native American and killed by soldiers). He frequently dreams of their time together and the things that his wife taught him and his son about overcoming fear and troubles. Those memories and the love they represent were as sustaining for Glass as was the food he caught along the way or the healing provided by a Native American who, like him, had lost everything dear to him.
The interplay between the savagery of nature and the façade of civilization serves to provide insight into what it means to be human. Glass must revert to an animal nature to survive the wilderness, but before he can come back to the world of people, he must be reconnected to something that is beyond the animal aspect of who we are.