Today’s topic: the world of The Revenant. When I think about it, I come to the conclusion that cinema is divided into two categories: movies and films. Movies can be manipulated, changed, edited, cut and re-shot. Films, on the other hand, are made out of stone; once they’re done, they’re done, they’re rock solid and they stay forever. Nothing can change them, nothing can touch them. They are confessions, tales of truth, parables that will guide future generations in hopefully the right direction. The Revenant is a film. You look at it and you are fully aware that you’re not reading a comic book, you’re not playing a video game, you are watching a film. Why is that? What makes it so colossal and epic? Its immense, cruel, beautiful world.
Man vs Nature has been the topic of many directors’ filmographies such as Werner Herzog’s (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God), Andrei Tarkovsky’s (Andrei Rublev), and Akira Kurosawa’s (Dersu Uzala). Their works were epic in form yet intimate in scope. Their protagonists fought fear, greed and most of all they tried to prevail against nature. Same thing goes for The Revenant? Not quite. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the master behind such revolutionary works like Amores Perros, Babel and Birdman, has crafted an epic tale of survival based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass who in 1823, in the Rocky Mountains territory, was brutally attacked by a Grizzly bear and left for dead by his companions. This stubborn son of a bitch battled his way through waterfalls, frozen lakes, forests and mountains, crawling for 300 miles in order to find and kill the men who betrayed him. As many viewers noted, in most cases sounding rather disappointed, the film has a very simple plot. Sometimes, we tend to forget that our world is not that complicated. We’re not masters of the universe. We’re just tiny creatures who happen to live in a big world. Everything we do is rather simple; what we call ambition is usually nothing but instinct. We set ourselves a goal, and slowly, slowly we go for it. The Revenant is about that.
The setting: Rocky Mountains (although shot in Alberta, Canada, and Argentina), near the Missouri River, Indian Territory, 1823. The protagonists: fur trappers working for a fur trading company, Arikara tribesmen, Pawnee tribesmen, French renegades… and nature. We’re presented with a very primitive world; a world where everything comes at a price, be it a scalp or a buffalo skin. Every man works for himself. No one sees the bigger picture. Everything is driven by hatred, anger, and yes, revenge. Why shouldn’t it be so simple? All of this still applies to this day and age. We haven’t made such incredible progress; wars are still fought over who has more money, more oil, more power. Kidnappings still happen in the name of ransom and revenge. Corruption still exists because of our primitive instincts. So why complain? The world of Hugh Glass at least doesn’t have skyscrapers, tanks, war missiles and drug cartels. It’s a world where you can still smell the morning grass, where you can hear the wolves howl, where you can walk through the wildest of all places and not be disturbed by poachers and tourists. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Gravity, Birdman) make this world seem closer to us. The viewer can almost touch it. And that’s the beauty of it.
Hugh Glass was abandoned, buried alive, his personal items stolen and his favorite rifle taken. That is what the book (by Michael Punke) recounts and what the true story says, but Iñárritu found it to be missing something. He said; yes, sure, he probably did it to get back his rifle and fight for his honor, but I want to add something to it. That’s how Hugh Glass becomes a father. A father of a Pawnee boy, his half-breed son, named Hawk. Because fatherly love is also a basic human instinct. A mother and a father are willing to sacrifice themselves, to walk through hellfire, to fight the devil if that’s what it takes to save their child. Hugh Glass’ son is killed by a man called Fitzgerald (played by a superb Tom Hardy who creates one of the most human and vulnerable villains of all time). And that’s when Glass loses everything he had, everything he lived for. Everything he ever wanted. It’s a wake-up call that whispers into his ear “keep breathing, crawl out of your grave and fight”. That’s what he does. His heart painted black with hatred and thirst for revenge pushes him to face the brutality of nature, the mercilessness of a world where man has no say over who gets to live and who gets to die.
The world of Glass is simple, yes but it’s also emotional. There is love, friendship, sacrifice. The flashbacks that recall his Pawnee wife, a better life, a peaceful tepee, times when everything seemed so magical, tell us that there is more to this character than what we see. In these dream sequences we see Glass contemplate the unexpected. He studies the beautiful, majestic nature. Nature that makes it possible for him to breathe and walk, love, desire. He understands that in nature, there is no enemy, only an ally, a mother that watches over him at all times. Perhaps we don’t see a God, but we sense that out there, in the blue sky, there is something that makes the rain so wet, that makes the snow so cold, that makes the rays of sunlight so warm. There is a force that rules this brutal jungle of animals, this world that we find so savage and inhuman. This world that we try to tame. Why tame it if we can respect it? Why cut off a branch when we can water it? Why trap a butterfly when we can watch it fly in our garden? Why kill a forest when we can admire its magnificence? The Revenant, with its beautiful use of natural lighting and on-location production, is a reminder that everything we have we owe it to something much bigger than money. Much larger than our own ambitions. Something invisible that we can only feel once we submerge ourselves like Hugh Glass. Once we start to crawl in the dirt. Only then.
Only then we will find that ‘something’ we’ve all been looking for.