Words by Sam Levine
noun | rev·e·nant | \ˈre-və-ˌnäⁿ, -nənt\ | one that returns after death or a long absence
The Revenant is one of those rare artistic efforts which alters the way you perceive the world. The film as a whole presents itself to its audience as a coalescence of metaphors, analogies, and subtle nudges of the subconscious which serve to, finally, leave a whispering mark on the mind. It shows humanity at its most base, the man as survivor, not in control of his domain but entirely at its mercy, his only tool sheer obstinate willpower.
Throughout most of the movie, the landscape of the American Northwest takes center stage, to the extent that it feels like the unforgiving wilderness is the antagonist of the story. The Revenant does an incredible job of illustrating the meanness of humanity. The camera rarely focuses on the human characters except in action sequences, instead framing them as temporary interlopers in the endless wild. One scene in particular comes to mind: Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is walking through a vast snow-filled valley, struggling to survive, wounds open, exhausted, near death. The audience knows this from context alone, because Glass is not center-frame. He’s off away to the right of the screen growing smaller and smaller as the camera pans up to take in the full scope of the environment he’s trying to survive in.
The story of The Revenant is a simple one: it’s pure, unadulterated good versus evil, told as a story of revenge. Hugh Glass stands alone as an exceptionally righteous man in an arena of unscrupulous racists, rapists, and murderers. I would say his crucible is a Christ metaphor, except that the Christ story is in fact a story much more ancient than the nomads who thought of it: struggle in the name of good is as integral a part of the fabric of humanity as our biological anatomy. Glass’s crucible is the crucible of all humanity: the struggle of existence in the face of a hostile and labyrinthine world.
The one who stands against him, his Lucifer, is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a character who has a layer of depth which Glass lacks. Fitzgerald is the one fallen from grace, cast from the kingdom of Heaven in this case by a raiding native tribe who scalped him alive and left him for dead, twisting his mind and leaving him plausibly evil. He has no motive save the preservation of his own life. He enjoys causing suffering in others. Like the fallen one of Christian mythology, he has no purpose left but to spread the pain which was thrust upon him.
Alejandro Innaritu, the director, chose to use only natural lighting throughout, and the effect is noticeable. It adds a quality of depth and surrealism which is invaluable in the telling of such an ancient story. Innaritu’s ability to at once shock the audience with sudden violence and primal fear, and then, like a classical conductor, slow the pace again, leaving us alone to wander with Glass in the temporary calm of the quiet wild, is unparalleled.
The acting is perfect, from the top down.
The Revenant is an unsettling movie because it disturbs the fallacious notion of the modern era which says that we as humans are somehow disconnected from the immense forces at work in the world. Somehow it chips away at the hubristic arrogance we hold so close to our hearts, the part of our consciousness which believes that rule of law is inherent to the existence of man.
The Revenant is art at its most effective. It uses simple tropes to illustrate undeniably important concepts, and it manages to be aesthetically stunning while it does so. Masterpieces are rare in the modern age. Creativity endures, even after long absence.
Words by Sam Levine