The Revenant is an assault on the senses. From beginning to end the film rattles the body and mind of viewers by taking us on a disturbing adventure through the soul of Hugh Glass. We are invited to savor the beauty of the wilderness, writhe at the pain of a tortured man, and ponder the fuel and futility of revenge (SPOILER ALERT – plot details ahead).
In perhaps the most difficult scene to watch, the bear attack, the viewer is placed five feet away like a bystander hiding in the brush. As the bear gruesomely tears away at Glass’ back and tosses him about like a chew toy we are left to watch in horror. Talk about a pacesetter for the rest of the film.
While being one of the most visually gripping and visceral films I’ve ever seen, it is truly contemplative. Alejandro Iñárritu (the film’s director) does some emotional and philosophical heavy lifting throughout the movie. And the musical score provides a meandering space for the viewer’s imagination to ebb and flow with the rising and receding tide of tragedy and loss.
Revenge is the motor driving Glass and, consequently, the plot of the movie. Helplessly watching your only son be murdered in cold blood, and then yourself being half-buried alive and left for dead – that puts gas in revenge’s engine, if you know what I mean. But it’s where Glass’ journey ends that raises the biggest question of the film.
Glass finally tracks down the man who killed his son, Fitzgerald. And after a grizzly fight with him, Glass sees a little ways down the river a group of Native Americans, who will undoubtedly kill Fitzgerald. Instead of taking Fitzgerald’s life, Glass mutters, “Revenge is in God’s hands,” (something he heard earlier in the movie from another Native American). Pushing Fitzgerald into the river, Glass sends him to his death.
After all this, Glass walks away wounded and quite likely to die. But similar to the end of Inception, viewers are left to decide for themselves whether or not Glass is satisfied, to decide whether or not revenge really pays off – the very question Fitzgerald asks Glass in his final words.
Does revenge truly provide the peace it so desperately promises? I don’t think so. While revenge is a wonderful motivator (at least, in terms of what it can drive a man to endure), it is terrible master. It is great – albeit poisonous – fuel for the soul, but ultimately it sparks a futile enterprise. According to the Christian worldview and, I think, according to The Revenant, revenge is best left “in God’s hands.”