At the time of writing, the Academy Awards are in just over a month. By now, everyone’s probably rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio to win. For once. Considering his performance in The Revenant, and the fact that he’s already won a Golden Globe for the same role, it wouldn’t surprise anybody if he was awarded it this year. As Hugh Glass, he dominates the screen, a singular force of survival in the wild pre-US-societal America. That’s exactly what we’ll be discussing here: the wild, and the drive to survive. As always, may contain spoilers.
The story we’re presented with is relatively simple (especially when compared to previous DiCaprio movies, like Inception.) Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is part of a company of men out to collect pelts. After a devastating attack by the natives – the Arikara – and a subsequent fight with a bear (no, really), the frontiersmen are at their wits end, and Hugh Glass is fighting for his life. His half-breed son, another young man from the group, and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) stay behind to see Glass through to his death, while the rest of the company press on. Glass is then left for dead, his son killed, and Fitzgerald on his way home to claim a reward to staying behind until the end. By that point, we’re already a big chunk into the movie, but that’s all in the trailer.
The frontiersmen, all of them, face two big challenges in their lives: the fight against the wild, be it the weather or the animals, and; the struggling to survive attacks by the Native American tribes, and the French. We’re in pre-Independence America. There are no towns in the wilderness, only a base camp several days away from Glass’s death bed.
The need to survive, the need for retribution, is all that keeps Glass alive. He dons the bearskin – his kill, and his alone – to fight back the winter, grunting and growling the whole time. In taking the beast’s life, he became the beast. He’s left with only his gnarling teeth, a knife, a canister, and the bear claws – a reminder that he’s more capable than anyone had any right to be when the world was out to kill you. Even when he recovers his strength enough to walk, he’s mostly without the use of his voice. He grunts, he points, he gestures. Communication for Glass is rare. The two people he encounters who don’t immediately try to kill him aren’t conversationalists. They’re natives, and he’s a white man. Glass keeps his bearskin over him, too. He’s a wild beast with a man’s face and a slashed throat. When the need comes to sleep inside his horse, Luke Skywalker style, he whinnies. He draws on the creature’s strength. As needs must, Glass becomes the animals whose skin he wears.
The fight for survival is not just Glass’s. The Arikana tribe fight to stay alive against the oncoming tide of white men from across the ocean. They fight lies and deception, using bows against guns. They know what they want from the world, they have their crusade. Their morals and strategy are questionable at best – kill whatever moves that isn’t Arikana – but their intent is pure: survive. Glass may have a half-breed son – and formerly a Pawnee wife – but the racial divide, the struggle between two different types of people, is still a violent one. White men took everything from the Native Americans.
The Revenant gives us no breaks, just as the wild winter presses on against the frontiersmen. We must attempt to survive two hours of violence and bleeding, cringing at open wounds and holding our breaths when we think Glass might perish – or when it might be less cruel for him to die. Even when the walls are around Glass, when he has a roof over his head in the same way we do, there is no reprieve from the wild. His driving force for survival was retribution, and until then, even the walls of society cannot keep the wild out, nor can we look away. Until we know that Glass can survive wild – the outside world, and the wild within – we cannot let the movie end. If he can’t survive it, no one can.