Like many young Americans, especially those from rural New England, I passed through a customary phase of transcendentalism in my college years, poring over Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” and imagining a “transparent eyeball” through which the currents of Universal Being flowed. Mostly, I held the intoxicating beauty of nature in mind: the big woods, the blue sky, the calm river.
But thinking nice thoughts about nature is one thing; living in nature is a different animal.
Alejandro Iñárritu’s epic new film The Revenant takes place in the wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase just before Emerson penned his essay and is a startling reminder of just how nasty nature can be. From the first frame to the last, the journey of frontiersman Hugh Glass is one of Darwinian survival, where daydreams about the peace, harmony and tranquility of nature are just that: daydreams.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) still gives us a feast for the eyes. Babbling brooks, soaring mountains, and distant avalanches are things of breathtaking beauty. But there is no time for poetry here, nevermind an essay; the harsh, wintry elements and the ever-present threat of the indigenous Arikara tribe keep Glass and his trapping comrades on the move. When an ambush leaves most of them with shorn scalps and pierced throats, Glass and a small group manage to escape — at least for a time. Glass sets off to hunt, and in one of the most gripping and intense scenes in recent memory — one that last several minutes and feels like an eternity — suffers a vicious attack from a protective mama grizzly.
And this is just the beginning. Nature continues to conspire to kill Glass; human nature is dragged under the same brutal rubric and a Hobbesian “war of all against all” threatens to make his life not only nasty and brutish, but short. Throughout it all, Glass does and sees horrible, gut-wrenching things to survive. What else can he do? “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight,” Glass counsels his son. “You breathe … keep breathing.”
But The Revenant is far from a closed materialistic picture. In an interview with the Guardian, Iñárritu describes Glass as a character that is on the road to becoming “a man, a beast, a saint, a martyr, a spirit.” “I’m not any more a practitioner of Catholicism,” Iñárritu says, “but I was obviously interested in that saint spirit — I really truly believe that it’s much more real than physicality.”
It comes as no surprise then that Iñárritu has made a deeply sacramental film. Glass’ love for his wife, his devotion to his son and his thirst for justice all manifest themselves in dreams and intuitions which overflow mere physicality. His wife’s encouragement reaches him through the wind; his son’s embrace finds him in a dream of a ruined altar, where images of the Crucified Lord surround them and the thirst for revenge culminates in a kind of humble deference to the providence of God.
The Revenant is also deeply redemptive. Glass’ breathing resembles that of the grizzly bear that attacked him — deep, heavy and labored — and just as the strength of the bear is fueled by the death of other animals, the endurance and dignity of Glass’ spirit is fueled by the enormous suffering inflicted on him. “There would be no good of patience without the evil of persecution,” one saint wrote, “nor the good of the preservation of its life in a lion, without the evil of the destruction of the animals on which it lives.”
But in the end, we stare into the eyes not of a beast that has survived but of a survivor who has been saved.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.