We live unthinking. The grand engines locked in our ribcage are on autopilot. Hearts beat. Lungs expand and contract. Livers and kidneys and spleens do what they were designed to do without direction. We wake each day in rote repetition, moving through the hours in lands of plenty.
Yet to live—to take another breath, to allow your heart another beat—is still a choice. Sometimes a hard one.
Years ago, Hugh Glass watched his son nearly die. Their Pawnee village was attacked by soldiers in the then-unclaimed lands of the American West, and dozens died at the encroachers’ hands, including Glass’ Pawnee wife. His son, Hawk, was badly burned in the attack, but Glass practically willed his child to survive.
“You don’t give up! You hear me?” he told the boy. “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight.”
Hawk fought and lived. Now the two work as scouts for a hunting and trapping expedition—a father-and-son team in some of the world’s wildest environs. It’s Glass’ job to help the trappers get in, out and rich—all while keeping most of them alive. Easier said than done. A tribe of Rees attacks the party, killing more than half. They’ll likely attack again, and it’s up to Glass to track down the safest route back to Fort Kiowa.
But as Glass scouts, he runs headlong into a family of bears, getting between mother and cubs. When the rest of the party find Glass, he’s more a mass of bloodied meat than man, more dead than alive. Most expect he’ll expire for good in an hour or two.
But he doesn’t. Glass lives, the sheer audacity of which forces his comrades to care for and carry him. Snow begins to fall. The terrain grows more formidable. And the Ree are still out there, somewhere, eager to claim the rest of their scalps.
Finally, they can go no further—not with Glass’ nearly dead weight holding them back. Captain Andrew Henry decides to leave him behind, to be watched over by volunteers until he takes his final breath. Hawk stays with his father. A young man named Jim Bridger volunteers, too. And John Fitzgerald—a nasty work of nature with an eye on extra pay—stays behind as well.
But much to Fitz’s frustration, Glass still refuses to die. He can’t walk. He can’t talk. But he keeps drawing breath. Ragged. Painful. To Fitz, pointless.
So one afternoon when Hawk and Bridger are away, Fitz sidles up next to Glass. Fitz tells him he could make his death quick and painless. He tells him that, by watching over his worthless body, they’re all in danger. The Ree could come at any minute and kill them all … including his boy. Do you really want to kill your son? Fitz asks.
“Just blink,” Fitz tells him. Blink, and Fitz’ll take it as a yes—a yes to the end of this painful life, a yes to sweet oblivion. “What are you holding onto, Glass?” he asks.
Blink, Fitz says. Just blink.
[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Glass does blink—for the sake of his boy. And yet Hawk wants his father to live. Each is willing to sacrifice a great deal for the other, even if those sacrifices are incredibly extreme. And in a cruel irony, Hawk ends up saving Glass’ life while losing his own.
Glass, now alone in the wilderness, still refuses to die. You have to respect the man’s sheer determination to keep going, but he doesn’t do it without some help. He meets a Pawnee who befriends him, feeds him and nurses him. And when Glass is healthy again and on his own, he rescues a young Ree princess from the clutches of French trappers and soldiers.
While the land we see in The Revenant is a cold and brutal one, it is not without honor and compassion. Captain Henry brings Glass as far as realistically possible, wanting to do right by this man who, Henry believes, kept their party alive. And when death looks inevitable, Henry wants Glass’ passing to be as dignified and natural as possible. Bridger, too, wants to look after Glass. He leaves him only when Fitz forces him to, and gives the poor man his canteen before departing. He also leaves food for a hungry woman (who is living in a burned village full of corpses). And while he doesn’t contradict Fitz’s lies when they finally reach the fort, neither does he take the money offered to him.
In the 1820s, when most everyone had some semblance of faith, Fitz is an outlier. He relates to Bridger how one of his pals found religion when he was alone, lost and starving. “He told me he found God,” Fitz says. “Turns out, God, he’s a squirrel. A big ol’ meaty one.” And so Fitz’s friend “shot and ate that son of a b–ch.” When Bridger gets on Fitz’s bad side, Fitz points a gun at the man and says, “I ought to be like God to you. God giveth, and God taketh away.” And when Fitz tries to kill Glass, he begins offering a prayer over Glass’ struggling body, then gives it up as pointless as he tries to squeeze the breath out of him.
Conversely, Glass, a man of European descent who lived for years with the Pawnee, dreams that he reunites with his son in the ruins of a Christian church—the church bell silently swinging, religious murals visible. Many of his prayers and visions hint at his belief in an afterlife.
Capt. Henry points a gun at another man, telling him to say the Lord’s Prayer. Trappers offer prayers for the dead as they throw bodies into a river. Glass’ Pawnee friend tells him that he, too, lost his family, but he is not seeking vengeance. “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands,” the Pawnee says—a sentiment echoed later. A Native American chants among scads of dead bodies, offering up his own version of prayer.
I’ll note here that the movie’s very name has spiritual connotations—referring to a ghost or animated spirit, often tending to wreak havoc among the living.
Native American women dance with and consort with white men in the fort. Two men drunkenly dance with each other. A guy expresses his desire to find a woman with large breasts. Glass goes naked at one point. (We see part of his backside.) A naked man falls down dead from an arrow wound. (There’s full-frontal nudity from a distance, and a closer look from the back as his body is being dragged away.)
In a grimly gratuitous scene that is fully depicted, a Ree woman is violently raped. (Clothes don’t hide the movements, the sounds, the shame and the horror of what’s happening, and it’s implied that this is a pretty normal occurrence.)
Let’s begin with the bear. The animal—surprised by Glass—charges the man and rips into him like a dog might tear into a flimsy bag filled with bacon. We see the grizzly rake her claws across his back and neck, bite into his hand and tear into his throat, yanking and worrying him. She stands on his face and nearly crushes him. While Glass eventually kills the bear—shooting at point-blank range and stabbing her several times—the bear’s body lands on Glass, making it impossible for him to move. As mentioned, when Glass is rescued, he’s covered with blood and gaping wounds. When he drinks, he coughs up blood. To “fix” his neck wound, he puts a touch of gun powder in it and lights it, causing the open injury to solder shut. (And that’s not all we see of Glass’ grotesque wounds.)
Glass is one of the lucky ones. Several other people die from bullets, arrows or knives—and the moments of impact are often vividly displayed. We see trappers get skewered in the face and neck by arrows. Glass has another man’s blood spattered across his face. People are pummeled by the butt ends of rifles. Someone’s fingers get hacked off. Hands and legs are viciously stabbed. People nearly drown and fall from heights. We see a hanging. Fitz is partly bald—the result of a scalping he survived earlier in his life (and described in horrific detail). Water and snow turn red with blood. Corpses are everywhere, it seems.
Animals have a hard time of it, too. One horse is shot in the head, felling him instantly. Another is hit by an arrow and plunges from a cliff. Glass hollows out a dead animal (we see him removing the massive guts), strips naked and sleeps inside the cavity, which keeps him warm in a snowstorm. A buffalo is taken down by wolves which are, in turn, kept at bay by fire. (Some of the wolves get a bit too close.) In dreams and/or flashbacks, Glass stares at a huge mountain of bison bones.
Fifteen or more f-words, and about the same number of s-words. We’re also pelted by “a–,” “b–ch,” “t-ts,” “h—” and “p—.” God’s name is mashed up with “d–n” around 10 times. Jesus’ name gets abused four or five times. The n-word is spit out. Someone makes a crude reference to cutting off testicles.
Most of these hardened trappers love their drink. We see them drunk when they’re inside the fort, blearily dancing or gambling or practically passed out. One falls down in the snow when he leaves a warm tavern to relieve himself. Frenchmen get drunk at their campsite.
Glass spits up blood and throws up the raw meat he tries to eat. Others vomit in the midst of incredible carnage. Native Americans are treated by many as subhuman. Glass is despised for having a son with a Native American woman.
There’s meaning in this mad world. That’s both a statement about the movie and, really, the point of the movie itself.
Fitz is its prime materialist. He lives for the paycheck and kills to earn one. And if a man should get in the way of his living? Well, it’s not personal to remove the man, necessarily: Just business, Fitz would say. He seems a bit mystified that anyone would ever think differently. Meaning? There is no meaning for him. Only comfort or discomfort. Only getting ahead or falling behind. Only predator or prey.
But Glass sees the world in a different way. The story returns again and again to the bond he shares with his son. And when Hawk dies and Glass lives, something breaks in the survivor. He literally crawls out of the grave dug for him and wills himself to life—if only to bring the boy’s killer to justice.
“He has everything to lose,” Glass says. “All I had was my boy, and he took him from me.”
We understand Glass’ rage, even if we can’t condone it. But the movie is not a simple story of revenge. Its conclusion is more nuanced than that—both more hopeful and more bleak. What happens when everything you’ve loved is gone? What becomes of you when vengeance has been sated?
Yes, there’s meaning in this mad world—a meaning more powerful than Fitz’s materialism, more lasting than Glass’ revenge. We live. We give no thoughts to the workings of our lungs or livers. But what do we live for?
The Revenant, like the land it depicts, is beautiful, brutal and unforgiving. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy excel in their ability to bring Glass and Fitz to graphic life … while their characters’ terrible, personal war turns this excruciatingly violent movie into a harrowing, even scarring sojourn.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.