I’ve just returned from seeing ‘The Revenant’ at Edinburgh’s filmhouse and was deeply inspired and moved by it. I know I’ll be watching it again, not just as it’s one of those films in which a lot is being said, but because of the way nature is depicted. As a landscape artist I found the director’s vision and interpretation of nature profoundly affecting,so I want to try to explore what it is that moved me.
From the opening scene which shows the film’s main character, Hugh Glass, asleep with his wife and son, I imagined this might be the precursor to a Braveheart-like epic of revenge (having read reviews of themes of machismo, violence and so on) but revenge is just one thread that weaves throughout the film.
Long after the credits had rolled, I still felt quite emotionally raw as I re-visualised scenes; the repeating image of tree tops viewed from the ground in different weather – swaying in sunlight, bending in a storm or silhouetted against twilit sky. Nature is more than an epic backdrop in this film. In one eagle-eyed view a river valley appears as an etched meandering scratch on a vast tundra-like plain, which to me suggested the sheer vulnerability of humanity when we have nothing but willpower, wits and the clothes on our back to survive.
The camera view repeatedly follows rivers throughout the film – perhaps a reminder of the continuity of nature versus our brief moment on earth. The sub zero conditions of Canada mean that the actors’ breath is visible and (uniquely as far as I know in cinema) Inaritu uses this – allowing the camera screen to fog up, or dissolve from this evidence of human life to billowing clouds, mist and the elements we breathe and survive on.
The film’s final moment shows Hugh Glass abandoning his revenge quest because, in the words of his dead wife, ‘revenge is in god’s hands’. Glass releases his enemy Fitzwilliam into the river, where he drifts to a bend of land and is hauled out by a native tribe leader who looks across the water at Glass then kills Fitzwilliam. Glass, now dying, looks on as they pass, one woman in the tribe looks directly at him as she passes and we realize it’s the woman he helped escape from a group of French fur trappers who had raped her. And in an echo of Glass’s journey to avenge the death of his son, she is also the daughter the tribe leader has been seeking to rescue or find, whether dead or alive, throughout the film.
‘Male revenge porn’ and ‘machisimo’ have been some of the words used by critics to describe the film, but I didn’t get that from the film at all. Through his dreams and visions it’s Glass’s dead wife who helps him live and die with courage and grace. This film suggests we’re just one small part of a terrifying and beautiful world, Innarritu shows us nature’s indifference to our hopes and desires – there are no sides to take, no ‘man against nature’ – ‘life’s but a brief candle’ and in the context of environmental changes on our planet that may be as a species not just as individuals.
DiCaprio, as it happens, is a dedicated environmental activist and his relish of this role seems palpable. In one shot where Glass painfully hauls himself out of a grave in which he’s been left for dead, I couldn’t help but be reminded of DiCaprio’s famous comedy qualude related scene in ‘Wolf of Wall Street’. In a sense both show characters with indomitable will, for contrasting reasons. ‘The Revenant’ explores what motivates our will to survive. For Fitzwilliam it’s about greed and power, for Glass it seems at first to be about revenge, but in the end my interpretation was that he lived and died for love. A deeply moving dream-like sequence, reminiscent of European Avant Garde cinema (I wasn’t surprised to hear that Tartovsky is one source of Inarritu’s inspiration) shows Glass in a broken down ruin of a church, holding his son (now dead) in an emotional embrace, and brought to mind Larkin’s words ‘Our almost instinct, almost true: What will survive of us is love’.
It’s true there aren’t many Hugh Glassalikes in our times, but equally true that DiCaprio, Inaritu, cast and crew (those who tholled the entire gruelling 9 month shoot at least!) suffered to some degree for their art – the bear isn’t real, but swimming in sub zero temperatures is. All credit to the incredible talent and skills of Director, crew and cast that we feel immersed in it with them, and that this is our story. Also, perhaps, the reason behind that final shot of DiCaprio’s direct stare to camera where his breathing is still audible after the screen turns black.