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“The Revenant”: Man versus Nature With a Dash of Revenge

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David Ives - published on 01/08/16 - updated on 06/07/17

Even if he survives the elements, he faces a moral dilemma posed by his quest for vengeance

They should just save some time and go ahead and give this year’s Academy Award for Best Cinematography to Emmanuel Lubezki. He’s already carried home the trophy two years running for his work on Gravity and Birdman, and in all honestly, both of those films pale in comparison to the visual virtuosity he displays in The Revenant. The scene in which his camera alternately soars through snow-covered trees and dives through frozen waters during a frenzied skirmish between frontiersmen and Native Americans is nothing short of a master class in technique. Lubezki’s lens captures perfectly the combination of grandeur and menace that was the American Midwest in the early 1800s.

And yet when called upon to do so by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Lubezki’s camera can also be entirely intimate, moving in uncomfortably close to capture the emotions of the actors. Of course, it helps that the actor carrying the brunt of the emotional work in the movie is Leonardo DiCaprio, who delivers one of his finest performances as the legendary real-life explorer and fur trapper Hugh Glass.

The Revenant tells a highly fictionalized account of Glass’s ordeal to survive in the wilderness following a brutal bear attack that leaves him barely clinging to life. Left to die in the snow by expedition leader John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who also murders Glass’s son in order to ensure his own survival, Glass struggles to overcome his injuries and live long enough to exact his revenge.

In that sense, The Revenant is the simplest of stories, a combination of man versus nature mixed with a dash of revenge. The movie eschews narrative complexity in exchange for raw experience. The majority of the running time features a bloody and battered DiCaprio crawling across the landscape, avoiding the hostile indigenous tribes and doing whatever is necessary not to die. It’s an excruciating role that the actor throws himself into wholeheartedly, flinging himself into ice-covered rivers and greedily ripping into live fish with his teeth. DiCaprio may not win the Oscar for his performance, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

Which isn’t to say The Revenant doesn’t try to be more than just a grueling survival story. With only his thirst for revenge driving him forward, Glass is reminded many times on his journey, often by the ethereal voice of his deceased wife, that vengeance is something best left in the hands of the creator. So even if he survives the wild and manages to track down Fitzgerald, Glass will still have a moral dilemma to face.

And it is a dilemma. As a Christian viewer, revenge flicks like The Revenant can be a bit tricky. The Old Testament, of course, allows for an eye for an eye as long as the scope of the punishment is commensurate with the offense. But where it gets hard is when Jesus comes along in the Gospels and asks us to offer greater clemency than is required under the law, greater leniency than our feelings would desire. In short, we are to forgive as we have been forgiven. So while our sense of justice makes it easy to cheer on a character like Glass as he seeks to avenge the wrongs done to him and his son, there’s always that nagging voice whispering in our ear about mercy.

All through the film, The Revenant never lets us or Glass forget this. At one point, as he makes his way through a particularly ravaged landscape, Glass stumbles upon an abandoned mission, a single crumbling wall bearing the faded image of Christ rising out of the mists. It’s a glaring reminder that Glass’s immediate struggle may be with the forces of nature, but the one with his soul is coming.

Unfortunately, once the time comes to resolve that struggle, the film falters and offers no satisfactory resolution. The conclusion leaves the viewer with the bitter impression that all the sound and fury has, in the end, signified nothing. Still, the beauty of the film and the ferocity of DiCaprio’s performance make it nearly impossible not to recommend The Revenant. Just come prepared as it’s not always an easy journey, for the characters or the viewers.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by … watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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