Though we don’t have the Oscar nominations yet, I labeled this as one of my 2015 Oscar Watch commentaries because after seeing it, I am confident of two things: 1. The Revenant will receive an Oscar nomination for best picture and best director, and 2. Leonardo DiCaprio will win best actor for his gut wrenching performance as the frontiersman Hugh Glass.
Alejandro Inarritu directed this vast, weighty, sprawling epic that tells the story as much through visual and visceral filmmaking as through its dramatic exploration of the primal urge for revenge. Yes, it is brutal, but it is also beautiful. And I don’t mean “beautiful brutality” as in a Tarantino film. I mean the fearful symmetry of life that is the fallen splendor of creation.
Inarritu interweaves words, visual, audio and emotional drama into a masterpiece of storytelling tapestry. This is the kind of movie that shows you the real fullness of what film can do that other media cannot. Something I have not seen in a while. As you watch the brutality of winter trappers fighting with local American native tribes over pelts, you sense, you feel the power of man against the elements and man against man, that these early Americans had to overcome. The bear attack is at once truly terrifying and yet profound in its incarnation of man vs. nature.
In the world of filmmaking, you have the “arthouse” movies that are so obsessed with being “creative,” that they result in boring pretentiousness. And you have the “Hollywood machine” movies that seek to be a drug fix of action adrenaline that can be empty and shallow. Inarritu manages to transcend both and bring it all. Action, beauty, art, human depth and story. He did it with the Oscar winner Birdman last year, an existentialist exploration of our search for significance, and this year, he just might do it again with The Revenant.
The reason I am so impressed with Inarritu is because he is like Terrence Malick with a good story. Although I don’t often agree with his worldview, I do appreciate his filmmaking as a unique and creative voice in cinema (See my commentaries on his thoughtful films 21 Grams, and Birdman).
In The Revenant, he wrestles with the universal moral dilemma of revenge vs. justice. Bad revenge movies celebrate vigilanteism – or retribution outside the law (see my reviews of on The Punisher, Walking Tall, Sin City, A Time To Kill) Good revenge movies sympathize with the universal human desire for justice against criminals, especially murderers, but also deal honestly with the spiritual reality that revenge destroys the soul of the vigilante. (see my commentaries for Man on Fire, The Equalizer).
The Christian worldview proposes that God achieves justice, or in other words, his vengeance against criminals, legally through the state, not through personal vengeance outside of the law (Romans 12:19-13:5). Capital criminals deserve to die, but by the hand of the state and within the law. Of course, self defense is also a legitimate means for righteous violence (Exodus 22:2-3). But the main point is that certain evil men deserve to die, but if you do not achieve that justice through legal moral means, it will destroy you, and turn you into the very monster you seek to punish.
The Revenant brings in this spiritual dimension into the discussion in a way that other revenge movies sometimes miss. Hugh Glass is a man between worlds, a white man with a child from his marriage to a Pawnee woman, now dead. Don’t worry, no spoiling yet. This cinematic world has a fairly good balance of viewpoints within it. Yes, the Indians think the white man stole their land and their animals, but they also steal land and animals from each other, as well as from the white man, and the Indians kill each other as well. So there is no pristine “noble savage” nor thoroughly evil European here. All flawed, all human, too human.
At one point in the film, Hugh meets a Pawnee Indian whose family was wiped out by the Sioux. Hugh cannot understand why he is seeking to find more of his people to settle with rather than seeking revenge on the offending warriors. The Pawnee tells him, “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands.” This becomes a thematic challenge to Hugh’s own personal journey of revenge. And the moral issue that is addressed with thoughtful poignancy through the movie.
The villain, John Fitzgerald, played masterfully simple and real by Tom Hardy is an atheist, and fellow trapper who is guilty of atrocities. At one point, he tells a story about a fellow who found God. That fellow looked up in the air, and then climbed a tree, and found God. And God was a squirrel. So he “shot and ate the son of a bitch.” This is a brilliant encapsulation of the mockery of the atheist worldview and it is villainous pretentions.
Keep reading to find out how the ending embodies the moral theme of the movie…
SPOILER ALERT: How the ending embodies the moral theme of the movie
When Hugh faces down Fitzgerald in their mano-a-mano fight to the death at the end, it is a very brutal affair. But just when Hugh is about to kill Fitzgerald, he sees the Indian warriors downstream who had been seeking to save their woman from a band of French trappers. A band that Hugh had actually freed the woman from. Hugh repeats the Pawnee’s dictum, “Revenge in in God’s hands, not mine.” Instead of killing Fitzgerald, he dumps him into the stream to float downriver and be killed by the Indians. Those Indians, who hate the white man, wreak their vengeance on Fitzgerald, but choose not to kill Hugh, because they have the Indian woman he had saved with them. So it was his act of sacrifice in saving the woman that saved his life, the opposite of taking a life. It was his goodness that brought peace between him and the Native Americans.
And the criminal receives his just punishment of death, so justice is satisfied. It would have been wrong to let him go without punishment, because then the crime would not be paid for and justice would not be satisfied. That would be injustice, and the blood of the innocent would cry from the ground. Thus, pacifism and anti-capital punishment is a morally and spiritually bankrupt approach to law and justice.
This movie is quite profound, yet not without its flaws. I am going to be nitpicky here. I still think the story works well as it is because the metaphor is embodied in the story. But I do think we need to have clear moral compasses, and so I offer this critique.
While I applaud the notion that vengeance is in God’s hands, it is important to understand that that does not mean that we can never kill anyone in self defense (Exodus 22:2-3). The main import of the Christian worldview is that the state punishes and executes, and that is how God achieves his justice. It is not some spiritual mumbo jumbo suggesting God will do so spiritually or circumstantially in the criminal’s life. It is the notion that the state is precisely God’s hand in the matter (Romans 12:19-13:5). This is why vigilanteism is wrong, because our first course should be through legal means. If the state is itself corrupt, then the moral parameters may change, but that is a different discussion for another movie (the issue of civil disobedience).
But I would argue that Hugh actually had all legal and moral right to kill Fitzgerald. By the time Hugh found the murderer, Hugh was legally deputized and helping the captain hunt for the killer. Hugh was within the law. And Fitzgerald had killed the captain, and was trying to kill Hugh. So, realistically, Hugh had every moral and spiritual right, allowed by his Creator, to kill Fitzgerald. And in actual fact, floating the guy downstream to be killed by the Indians is the same thing as killing him, it’s just helping someone else to do it. Which is morally the same thing. So, technically, the metaphor breaks down in this movie.
But regardless of what the director may have been intending, I believe that the moral point is incarnate in the choices and consequences of the story: Vengeance is God’s, and God ain’t no pacifist.