“Revenge is in the creator’s hands”: the moral universe and The Revenant

 

leonardo-dicaprio-the-revenant-oscar-nomination

Spoilers this way lie

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. And this perhaps is none more true than in The Revenant, the new film from Alejandro González Iñárritu. Set in the icy wilderness of 1800s frontier America, the story follows Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his struggle to survive after being mauled by a grizzly bear. To make matters worse his comrade Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) then murders his son and leaves Glass for dead in a shallow grave. Consumed with grief and rage, Glass claws his way out of the dirt and starts crawling after Fitzgerald. Yes indeed, it’s fair to say that Glass is a man with a score to settle.
The film is beautifully shot, but despite this the natural world is portrayed as utterly indifferent towards the lives of men. One minute you’re taking in a jaw-dropping snowy panorama – the next a bear is eating your face. And it doesn’t stop there: men themselves seem to have adopted the same amoral attitude, as if by osmosis. The opening scene alone depicts a blood-soaked skirmish between Glass’ fur-trappers and a Native American tribe with palm-sweating brutality. The universe, it seems, does not care one jot if you take an arrow in the eye or a wild animal to the throat.
the-revenant bear
Against this amoral backdrop, Glass relentlessly pursues Fitzgerald: which is interesting, as revenge is essentially a moral desire – it’s about righting wrongs, demanding a payment for crimes committed. And it’s this tension between an amoral world and a moral quest for justice which makes The Revenant such an interesting film.
I know at this stage there will be people who disagree with the idea that revenge is in any way moral: it’s often portrayed as something which destroys the lives of everyone involved, and forgiveness is held up as a higher path. As it happens, this is a belief I actually hold myself. But I would also argue that every wrong does demand justice, and so the desire for vengeance is not itself wrong: the real question is who is qualified to dish it out.
revenant snow
About the mid-way point in the movie Glass hooks up with a Pawnee tribesman, who saves his life by treating him to some freshly eviscerated raw bison liver (yummy). During their time together the Pawnee reflects on his own personal losses, but that “revenge is in the creator’s hands”.
This line becomes somewhat prophetic, and ends up unlocking the entire film. In the final moments, as Glass finally catches up with Fitzgerald, and the two lock in combat and variously shoot, chop, stab, bite, hack and choke each other, Glass gains the upper hand – his righteous desire for vengeance nearly sated – before looking up to see the group of warriors who attacked him and his men in the opening scene. As it happens Glass saved the chief’s daughter in a random act of kindness earlier on. And so, in an epiphanic moment, he lets Fitzgerald float downstream to meet the warriors  who dispatch him with extreme prejudice, before letting Glass go free.
the-revenant wife
I love this. It’s as if the veil is torn back, and the amoral universe coalesces into something else. It’s a wonderfully serendipitous, symbolic and cathartic moment, that Glass’ vengeance is appeased but he is liberated from the burden – and cost – of carrying it out himself. And for all the brutality and harshness and apparent indifference that has gone before, there is a morality operating out there that cares about justice, and cares about us.

Published by Tim Coleman

Film critic. Screenwriter. Academic.

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