In 1975, directing his seminal play Waiting for Godot, Beckett justified his non-naturalistic production as an interpretive game. “It is a game, everything is a game” he began, “It is a game in order to survive”. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar contender, The Revenant, has survival at its core.
Famously rooted in a brutal production, forcing it’s actors to undergo a freezing climate and icy conditions, The Revenant is a powerful experience that vividly realises a profound truth in humanity: our search for purpose.
Hugh Glass (DiCapario), and his son (Forrest Goodluck), amongst an army of hunters and trappers, are desperate to find pelts amongst the treacherous conditions of Missouri. Set in the 1820’s, Native Americans protect their land and the group are soon hunted themselves by the Arikara tribe, ambushed unexpectedly and losing two thirds of the group. Amongst the survivors is Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a dangerous half-scalped racist whose only interest is himself. There’s also Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a young man still trying to understand his place in the world, challenged by the differing attitudes. The leader of the hunting group, Captain Henry James (Domhnall Gleeson), continues to lead knowing that Glass’s expertise is vital to their survival. But plans are scuppered when an enormous grizzly bear mauls Glass within an inch of his life.
DiCaprio, in interviews, views The Revenant as an “epic art film”. As the gruff men carry Glass on a hand-made stretcher, through the lush forest and challenging mountainsides, it recalls Aguirre, Wrath of God. While Aguirre deftly plots the slow loss of sanity amongst explorers in the 1500’s, The Revenant acknowledges how Glass’s drive to survive is simultaneously his loss of humanity: the beauty and perfection of nature contrasting with the flawed instincts of man. Using natural light, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki excels himself, as the perfectly captured freezing temperatures, prickly frost-covered trees and vast Missouri river runs parallel to Glass’s journey as he traverses across the American landscape.
After Birdman last year, a cinematic experience refusing to cut away, The Revenant captures sequences that leave you out of breath. A shot in the opening ambush effortlessly chases a hunter before his death moves our attention to the Native responsible, who is killed himself, moving to his victor, and so forth. This may be a flashy manner to shoot an arrow-and-gun fight, but it is integral. These first twenty minutes establish themes that linger until the final haunting frame of the film. Godot’s theme of our mortality and purpose is central to The Revenant, and this ongoing capture of life and death begs the question, what’s the point?
While similarly brutal, The Passion of the Christ presents the Christian question (and answering) as to the purpose of Christ’s death, The Revenant is more ambiguous placing man in the position of Christ. Hardy’s hyper-masculine Fitzgerald represents the greed and dominance of our modern world, his actions controlled by his need for money. His ethics are clearly corrupt but not unfounded, or unheard of. And while young Jim Bridger is conflicted as to who to trust, the Captain knows to trust Glass but won’t put his life on the line for it. Fitzgerald and Glass are two sides of the same coin, both experienced in the forest and survivors too. The Revenant reveals how experience shapes and dictates our actions, and when reborn, our will – and purpose – to survive can be rebuilt. We have to choose what foundations to build upon.