I’ll just get right into it then. The Revenant is a movie, a film, that first needs to be credited for the amazing accuracy and naturalistic qualities of the world at this time. This is the early 1800’s. These are fur trappers. Life is tough. There is a scattered battle going on between Native Americans and Europeans and American explorers in a vast, unforgiving landscape. The backdrop, the cinematography, and the way that this unchartered world is depicted gives the audience a sense of what these men were going through at the time. Not a fun time. There is a harsh, implicitly stated, reality of their situation—that any one of these men could die at any moment. It’s something that looms in the background of the movie, and with that, the overwhelming triumph of the human spirit and the will to survive.
The first character that really caught my attention was John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). He’s quirky and strange and interesting from the beginning. His accent is flawless. Really well done, and really reminiscent of the kind of mountain man that lived in this time period, that is, someone trying to earn their keep and stay alive while doing so. He has a bitter sense of humor and lacks empathy for those around him.
The audience learns why, of course, about 30 minutes into the film. John takes off his bandana, revealing a major scar on his head. He’s been scalped by Natives; indigenous people, for whatever reason. He doesn’t go into detail about why or what happened or how he escaped. But the fact of the matter is that this event changed him; broke him in a way. The whole story of what happened when he was captured, although not explicitly stated, can be told with his eyes. The way he looks at the others. The way he sees the kind of pointless endeavor of exploring new places and possibly getting killed. He says he wants to move to Texas repeatedly, settle down, farm a nice plot of land.
So of course when Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets mauled by a bear in the middle of their trek, John sees the kind of absurdity of keeping him alive and having to carry him at the expense of having their own weight to carry. He keeps hinting, keeps suggesting that they should leave him. Give him a “proper burial”.
I won’t say exactly how it all goes down and how Hugh gets abandoned by his men, but I will skip ahead to some other more important thematic concerns presented in this story. The first being the idea of the “other” and how the Native Americans are represented in this film. Inarritu’s vision for the relationship between the Indians and their counterpart, like the Americans, the French settlers, could not be more raw and enticing. Neither side is really the good or bad guy here. It’s not like other tales where there is an inherent bad guy or good guy. In this portrayal, there is fur, there is a land, there is a scarcity of guns and horses, and there is fighting that occurs amongst those who are trying to steal from one another.
And these Natives, these “savages”, as referred to in many instances by Fitzgerald, are more feared and misunderstood than they are actually savage. A lot of the bloody scenes in this movie, where little dialogue is actually spoken, has to do with Indians trying to reclaim their land, trying to take back what was theirs, trying to survive, just like everyone else. The kind of racism and disrespect that the fur trappers have for the Natives is not really an inherent racism. It has to do more with fear and terror, and fundamentally not understanding them. It’s actually a bit reminiscent of how the VC are treated in the Vietnam Conflict and popular films like Apocalypse Now. The two worlds are similar because people kill out of fear of being killed, and its sort of a vicious cycle where there is no society to step in and moderate everything that is going on.
That being said, there really is no real civilization set up in this film. There is the natural unchartered world of the American west; the cold and unforgiving landscape. And with that, little ruling or law or truth for that matter to go along with it. Fitzgerald is a character who warps the truth and creates his own rules in a world without any, reassuring himself that its perfectly okay to do so.
In the end, we see a character (Leo), who tries to take back some wrong done in the world. Someone who tries to set things straight in a world that doesn’t care so much about the truth. The truth is known, in the end.