The Revenant: A Ghost Story

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I finally got around to seeing, “The Revenant,” last week. (I’m a little slow at these things.) It took me awhile because all I’d heard about was the gruesome bear attack. That and I didn’t know what revenant meant.

[ˈrevəˌnäN, -nənt]

NOUN

  1. a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.

Aka a ghost. Who doesn’t like a good ghost story?

The brilliance of the film, of any good film I suppose, is that it works on more than just one layer. Director Alejandro Inarritu layers the film with so much meaning that a simple pursuit story becomes a conduit to explore a variety of ideas.  As an example, after the horrendous bear attack Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) salvages the brutes skin and wears it along with a string of the beast’s claws. Now Glass travels the countryside forging for food and avoiding predators. Glass is reborn as the bear. Predator has become prey.

Amazed how much I liked the film (it reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s work) I went home and searched online for film critics appraisals. As much as they emphasized the will to survive, revenge, mans inhumanity to man, blah, blah, blah… they seemed to avoid the obvious question Inarritu poses, are we just flesh and blood? (A direct response to the bloody bear attack.) Or are we much more, as the title suggests.

At the heart of the film are the contrasting characters of Hugh Glass and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Though similar on the surface (tough as nails frontiers men) they are polar opposites. Fitzgerald is material man, and Glass (like his name hints) is spiritual man. Glass carries the scars of his past in his heart: the death of his wife. Fitzgerald carries the scars of his past on his head, he’s been unsuccessfully scalped.

Fitzgerald is cast as the film’s necessary villain to Glass’ hero, but he is not entirely unsympathetic. In fact he may be much more like us than Glass. From the beginning the odds are against him. He’s the only one who seems to acknowledge and understand what serious trouble his wayward hunting party is in. When ordered to leave his valuable fur pelts behind, he balks. Money is life. If he has no money, he has no life. He might as well be dead. He fears death. (Who doesn’t?) Later on in the film Glass confesses that he doesn’t fear death, as he has already died. (Death seems to be in every frame of the film.)

For a film shot basically in black and white the characters come in varying shades of gray. Fitzgerald is modern man; a realist. He see’s the futility of trying to carry the mortally wounded Glass over snow-covered mountains while being pursued by hostile Indians. Meanwhile the morally superior Captain Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) the privileged son of a doctor, assuages his guilt of leaving Glass to die by bribing Fitzgerald to stay with him. A bribe the men will likely never live to see, while the Captain and the rest of the party return to the safety of the fort. Fitzgerald knows the game is fixed, and lives his life accordingly.

Deserted and left to die in a shallow grave, spiritual man Glass travels between two worlds, light and darkness. The world of light where his wife and son reside, and this dark world he is attempting to survive. His wife visits him regularly, encouraging him to continue, to persevere. He finds his dead son in the ruins of a church, or does he? This is the shadow world Glass inhabits.

Later on after Fitzgerald admits to his young naive companion, Bridger, that he has lied and murdered members of their hunting party. Bridger’s horrified reaction prompts Fitzgerald to justify his actions. He does by telling a bizarre hunting story. Fitzgerald’s hungry father went out to hunt for food and kills a squirrel. A squirrel who turns out to be God, and dinner.

See? Life is absurd. There is no God. It’s all a cruel joke. It’s every man for himself. A sentiment made abundantly clear with every brutal, beautiful turn of the film, according to Fitzgerald.

Film critics focus on the revenge angle of the story, the pursuit, who exacts revenge, God or man. I’m not sure it’s a pursuit film. Hugh Glass is barely able to stay alive, let alone pursue his former hunting companions.

Never the less the film culminates with the final showdown between Fitzgerald and Glass. Which man, and/or philosophy will win? Here is where the water is muddied and Inarritu compromises. (He must of felt that modern audiences wouldn’t appreciate a less violent ending.) The film is no better for it. But in the last frames of the film, we see Glass close-up. Reflected in his dying eyes is the reflection of his wife, and as his pupil dilates it forms a cross.

 

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