warning: mild spoilers
I’ll begin at the end. As The Revenant came to a close, my dad leaned over to me and whispered something about the reverent atmosphere as people noiselessly began to rise and leave the theater. I nodded in agreement. We stayed through the credits, listening as the music unwound in plaintive strings, and then walked to our cars with little conversation, uncharacteristic of our usual post movie talks. I can honestly say the film left me speechless. The astounding, visceral counterpoint of beauty and brutality pounded through my internal walls, pressing me into a place of quietude.
When you work in a windowless corporate office five days a week, you tend to romanticize nature. Admittedly, when I saw the early trailer for The Revenant, I was looking forward to a bit of escapism amid the towering, high-def shots of snow crested Montana, ready to imagine life as a frontiersman on a harrowing adventure. Yet for all its unflinching gore, mysticism and unbelievable survival scenarios, The Revenant somehow eschews escapism and feels deeply, fundamentally real. Its exploration of family and friendship, racial hatred and human evil is not only timely, but urgently so, for a modern world which has somehow managed to become more volatile and uncivil than ever under the reign of technology.
The Revenant returns to a simpler time to lay bare the human condition, and in so doing dares our jaded culture to give a damn. How sad it takes such an intense portrayal of physical and spiritual suffering for some of us to feel something, anything—and even then not everyone is moved. In one poignant scene, when Glass hugs his seemingly resurrected son, only to wake and find he is grasping a tree, the couple next to me could not suppress a laugh.
I found The Revenant to be neither hopeful nor despairing, it just is in the way the best poems are. It speaks to themes that are hard to put into words, but deeply felt—above all, for me, how such brutality can exist in a world of such boundless beauty. When Fitzgerald suggests that his father found God, a fat squirrel in a tree, and “ate the son of a bitch,” it actually seems perversely just, in a way. Yet, we are subtly reminded of the creator’s sovereignty a few scenes later, when the camera pans up to towering birch trees, revealing a squirrel’s nest above (thanks to my dad for pointing that out). It is, of course, in final deference to the creator that Glass at last finds peace.
I’ll end now at the beginning. After the devastating opening sequence, the film cuts to a rushing river, a symbol of life but also power, even danger. As one character observes, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. The same may be said of this film, which bestows a kind of dignity to human suffering and yet takes away the illusion that we can escape it.