It’s hard out there for a fur trader, especially if out there is the wild American North in 1820s. In fact, it’s hard for everyone. Men had to be hardy to survive, so hardy that one of them was Tom Hardy, playing partially scalped Texan John Fitzgerald. But hardier still is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, the great, great, great, great, great grandfather of Jason Voorhees. Seriously, you cannot kill this motherfucker. He literally pulls himself out of his grave. Not Indian war parties, not grizzly bears, not even nature, can keep him from his one burning desire, revenge. Trust me, you do not want to be in Fitzgerald’s shoes. You don’t want to be in Glass’ shoes either, but especially don’t want to be in Fitzgerald’s shoes.
Warning: I’m being more conscious of spoilers here since this is a brand new movie. I advise going out to see it right now. Don’t wait for the Blu Ray. Get the Blu Ray also, because you should own this movie, but first go see it in the theater like you deserve to experience it. Come on, treat yourself, you’re worth it.
After barely escaping an angry raiding party of Ree Indians, Hugh Glass is mauled and almost killed by a huge grizzly bear. Twice. While the rest of his group head back to their fort many days travel away, his son and grumpy Fitzgerald stay behind with Glass, promising to given him a proper burial when he kicks it. Fitzgerald gets impatient and tries to finish off Glass, only managing to kill Glass’ son in the process. Fitzgerald high tails it after giving Glass a very improper and totally ineffectual burial. Filled with a thirst for vengeance, Glass drags his ragged, bear-clawed body from his grave and begins a very slow pursuit of Fitzgerald. In addition to being three-quarters dead and crawling through an aggressively hostile wilderness with no food or weapons, he himself is being pursued by the Ree, who are out for their own vengeance for the chief’s kidnapped daughter. He escapes down a freezing river, is bounced around by rapids, and naturally, goes over a waterfall. He bonds with a similarly grieving but much healthier Pawnee, and heals in a tiny little house while hallucinating about his dead wife. He participates in the very just desserts of a rapist Frenchman. Pursued by the relentless Ree, he drives his horse off a cliff, gets even more hurt, and like a Han Solo of the frontier, has to Tauntaun his dead horse for warmth. When he finally gets back to the fort, Fitzgerald, having heard of Glass’ not-dead and very pissed off status, has again high-tailed it. Glass puts aside his quest for revenge, settles down at the fort, and leads a quiet, meaningful life. Naw, just messing with you. Glass heads after Fitzgerald for their inevitable bloody reunion, which only one, or maybe neither, of them will walk away from.
Everyone loves a good survival movie. From LIFEBOAT in 1944, to the disaster movies of the ‘70s, to recent stuff like 127 HOURS (2010), THE GREY (2011), or ROBERT REDFORD ON A SINKING BOAT (2013). It highlights the ferocity of the human spirit, the heights of our ingenuity, and the fragility of our existence. We keep coming back to the theme because the emotion is so relatable. Most of us dig not dying. It’s something we can get behind. THE REVENANT gives you that, plus a little extra kick. Mixed in, Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup style, is a bit of another beloved genre, the revenge flick. These two great tastes do indeed go great together.
The majority of the mix is straight up survival, and it is more brutal than most. It shares some of the frenetic urgency (and swoopy camera work) of GRAVITY, but piles on about a million times more physical abuse. The grizzly attack is the hallmark; I’ve never seen a more visceral, realistic feeling animal attack. I have no idea if it actually is realistic, having never been mauled to within an inch of my life, but it certainly was more intense than Bart the Bear’s antics in THE EDGE. And he was pretty intense, despite the cute name. It does include a tactic I’ve heard grizzlies use, the fake out. After being bashed around, clawed to shreds, and chomped on pretty good, Glass is left in a bloody pile while momma heads back to her cubs. It gives you just enough time to exhale before she comes rushing back. Some people thought it was the movement of Glass reaching for his rifle that brought her back, but really it’s because grizzlies have a great work ethic, they don’t leave shit half done. I think she was only telling her cubs to get a good seat, because the show was just beginning. The second round was even worse, if Glass hadn’t put a bullet in her, it would have been a very short movie.
Wouldn’t it be funny if the end of the bear attack scene was the starting point of a separate animated Disney movie that followed the orphan cubs? The attack would be much more suggestive, and Glass would seem like the aggressive and menacing one. Maybe just before they disappear over the cliff, momma bear tells brother bear to look after his sister. I’m sure they would run into a wisecracking raccoon and muskrat duo who show them how to find food and sing songs about finding food. They could get hassled by some crows with French accents. In the end, they overcome their fear of humans by leading a lost Native American princess back to her tribe, earning the wise chief’s respect and gratitude. I think they missed out on a cross-over family hit.
The movie would be amazing even if it just stuck with the straight up survival angle. Almost everything in Glass’ entire world wants to kill him. But the icing on the cake is the vengeance aspect. After the bear attack, Glass is ready to check out. It’s not as much is will to survive that pushes him through miles of wilderness as it is the need to end the son of a bitch who killed his son. It seems like an impossible task, Fitzgerald had such a big head start and Glass is only able to crawl at first. In his moments of rest, he scratches out “Fitzgerald killed my son,” as both an affirmation and a record in case he doesn’t make it. The low heat of revenge keeps pushing him, though. Every inch he goes is an inch closer to killing that half-scalped bastard.
Glass isn’t the only one entitled to revenge. The Ree war party have a pretty good case for it, as well. These days, knowing what we do about the carving out of our country, Native Americans tend to automatically elicit sympathy, even without going heavy handed like in DANCES WITH WOLVES or, um, AVATAR. I can get behind their claim to vengeance on general principle, even when it is as brutal and arbitrary as the Ree attack in the start of the film. I don’t agree with the indiscriminate killing, but I can understand the motivation. What makes the Ree so interesting as characters, though, is the specific motivation for their rampage, and the way their story unfolds. In the aftermath of the opening attack, the chief , Elk Dog, wanders through the carnage, seeming a little out of it. The way the old man speaks and behaves, it’s unclear whether he is leading his people on an active rescue mission, or if he’s just tagging along on a raid, haunted by a tragedy that happened years ago. Later, when the Ree are trading pelts with a band of French fur trappers for weapons and horses, it becomes clear that the old man is not doddering at all. He takes command of the negotiations. When the head trapper complains that the pelts are stolen, Elk Dog replies “You all have stolen everything from us. Everything. The land. The animals. So suck it, Frenchie.” [Paraphrasing]
Elk Dog’s and Glass’ stories continue to intersect throughout the movie. Later, Glass helps the daughter, Powaqa, escape from the scumbag French trappers who had her all along. He has no idea of her significance, only that she is being abused and needs help. [And on a side note, I have nothing against the French, only these particular Frenchmen. They’re assholes. If it’s any consolation, Fitzgerald is a pretty poor representative for Texas, as well.] In the end, the Ree, now reunited with Powaqa, pass by Glass without a word. It’s a bit like the “you saved my niece, so I won’t execute you” scene from TRAINING DAY, without feeling as wildly coincidental. Elk Dog and Glass have both spilled enough blood to quench their need for vengeance.
It’s unclear what becomes of Glass after the last shot fades. He is, again, injured and miles from civilization. For a while I wondered if his slow breathing and his stare into the camera signified that without revenge pushing him, he was content to just lay down and die. But I don’t think so. The words of his dead wife are repeated over and over in his head. “As long as you can grab breath, you fight.” It is in honor of her and his son that he keeps breathing.
Sorry, this was a long one. It really spoke to me, though. I do, on occasion, appreciate movies other than trash.