The Revenant is alive. Its surface is fire and blood, hair and mud, but its animating spark is longing and love. The Revenant is about spirits yearning to be holy and others lost to pride. The Revenant is about the breath God shared with us that we now share with the world and about the ways we corrupt that breath when we’re consumed from the inside by the hellfire of greed. The Revenant is a gasp, an ache, a prayer.
The Revenant is a Western about a man, Hugh Glass (a grungy Leonardo DiCaprio), who is left for dead by his compatriots after he is attacked by a bear. He does not die. Instead, he revives and seeks to kill one of the men, John Fitzgerald (a grungier Tom Hardy), who did him a great wrong during his convalescence. The Revenant is a survival tale fueled by a thirst for vengeance. It is brutal. The bear attack that incapacitates Glass is the most horrific thing I’ve seen in a movie all year (in large part because I was once a breath away from being attacked by an angry mother grizzly bear myself), and the human-to-human violence throughout the film is graphic. The Revenant is unsparing in its depiction of the too common inhumanity of men toward other people and the world.
The Revenant is also an astoundingly beautiful film. This film marks the second time director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have collaborated (Birdman, both). This time they are joined by production designer Jack Fisk who is known primarily for his work on all of Terrence Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line. Lubezki has worked as cinematographer on every Malick film since The New World as well, so the movie looks like a Malick film in the best way. Nature itself—wind and water and fire and light—is pregnant with the presence of the divine in The Revenant. That awesome presence is contrasted with the ugly ways these men treat other people and the world. The Revenant rubs your face in bloody wounds, but it also makes sure you notice characters’ breaths (in two, fourth wall-revealing shots in particular which shocked me like no other shot in any film this year). It shows you these men’s dirty faces, but it also shows you their dreams. With Lubezki and Fisk, Malick makes graceful films. Iñárritu makes strident ones. The contrast in The Revenant makes both the beauty and the severity more bold.
A “revenant” is a person who has returned, particularly from the dead. By my count, Glass symbolically resurrects at least three times in this film. He’s buried, baptized, and even emerges from a womb. The scars on his back are compared by the editing to the scars of Christ’s scourging. He contemplates a crucifix. His side and hands are pierced. He’s called “Jesus Christ” twice, though the denotation is contextualized as an exclamation, as is common in films. The symbolism is so persistent, by two-thirds of the way through the film, I wondered if The Revenant wasn’t meant as some kind of allegory for Christ’s return in Revelation, a sword in his hand, his robe sopping up the blood of his slain foes. The film is not that. The completion of Glass’ arc is in learning to leave vengeance to God. Perhaps the ever-present symbolism is a kind of invitation that Glass continuously fails to heed.
Along with Timbuktu, The Revenant is the most spiritually aware film I’ve seen this year. By “spiritually aware,” I mean the film recognizes equally the human capacity to be both ruthless and incomprehensibly merciful toward others while acknowledging a transcendent power patiently advocating for and supporting the latter. That The Revenant’s spirituality is decidedly Christian is all the more remarkable. (The most human film, if you’re wondering, is Tangerine followed ever so closely by Anomalisa, and by “human” I mean the films demonstrate and champion the immeasurable value of every person regardless of their perceived “righteousness” or societal worth.)
The Revenant’s Christian spirituality is complimented by the spirituality of the Arikara (Ree) and Pawnee tribespeople featured in the story. In the past, Glass married a Pawnee woman and is raising a half-Pawnee, half-white son. Glass’ spiritual awareness is rooted both in his Christian heritage and his adopted culture. Glass also interacts with other Native Americans throughout the narrative, and they urge him toward practicing mercy in avowal of God’s sovereignty. The Native Peoples in The Revenant are presented as “of the earth,” natural in contrast to the American, French, and British aliens taking advantage of the Canadian Rockies’ animal bounty. The Native People’s spirituality is presented as similarly “natural,” unburdened by the constructed artifices of Western Catholicism (buildings, frescoes, sacraments, creeds). This “naturalness” is another way the narrative invites Glass to step into God’s transcendent reality that endorses mercy and is working justice in its time.
The Revenant is a great film, one of the best of this year or any year. As in life, it is difficult to stomach at times, but there is profound beauty there, enduring truth, and a longing and working for justice beneath it all.
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