20th Century Fox (2015) 156 min. R
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Iñárritu; based in part on novel by Michael Punke
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki; Editing: Stephen Mirrione
Production Design: Jack Fisk; Set Decoration: Caitlin Jane Parsons & Hamish Purdy; Costumes: Jacqueline West; Score: Ryuichi Sakamoto & Alva Noto
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass), Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald), Domhnall Gleeson (Cpt. Andrew Henry), Will Poullter (Jim Bridger), Duane Howard (Elk Dog), Forrest Goodluck (Hawk, Glass’ son), Arthur Redcloud (Hikuc), Melaw Nakehk’o (Powaqa), Kristoffer Joner (Murphy), Paul Anderson (Anderson), Lukas Haas (Jones)
rev·e·nant (noun) a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead. A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living. The word “revenant” is derived from the Latin word, reveniens, “returning” (see also the related French verb “revenir”, meaning “to come back”).
Based on the novel by Michael Punke, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is the (relatively) true story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman in 19th ct. America who was mauled by a grizzly bear, and left for dead by companions John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poullter) after they prematurely buried him alive.
This is a magisterial sort of Western, a throwback to ‘70s cinema like Jeremiah Johnson and Man in the Wilderness and ‘70s throwbacks like The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained, which DiCaprio also starred in. But still coming off his high with last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman, Iñárritu is out to top himself. Laying it on thick with mystical meanings more heady than something out of Terry Malick, he appears to have been puffing his peace pipe entirely too long. Even before the surreal flashbacks begin, in which we can’t tell fact from fiction, we suspect we’re jumping around in time because of the here-today-gone-tomorrow third degree burns on Glass’ half-Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the varying length of his own hair and beard.
Iñárritu doesn’t bother establishing his story so much as letting it flow stream of conscience fashion, requiring audiences to pick it up as it rolls along. As with Birdman, The Revenant has a totally different look and feel than it would have had it been shot by a director brought up on the folklore of this country. The dramatic emphasis has been shifted, as in foreign films, in ways we’re not accustomed to. Iñárritu seeks to turn this anecdotal tale of survival into an allegorical, existential saga haunted by visions and spectral omens, a fever dream awash in symbolism that’s hit or miss, with such inexplicable anomalies as the camera’s concentrated closeup on a horse’s eye, souls taking to flight in dove form, a mountain of buffalo skulls stacked sky high and Javier Botet as another nightmarish wraith.
The Revenant’s mysticism seems indebted to the existential mood of Malick movies like The New World and The Tree of Life, evoking similar leafy imagery as embedded in the philosophy of Glass’s ghostly native wife (Grace Dove). Her inspirational words of wisdom whispered to him in times of crisis become a reoccurring motif (“As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm. And you stand in front of a tree. If you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.”). Holding tight to such affirmation buoys Glass’ spirit when he stands at death’s door following the bear attack, his son whispering them into his ear, and later when he reiterates them to Hawk as confirmation that he will be avenged, as long as his father has strength left to fight for him. All the same, this self-affirming folk wisdom sounds suspiciously like a rephrasing of the equally masochistic, never say die mentality of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, “If you can take it, you can make it.” So despite his fragile surname, Glass, in surmounting his tortuous circumstances, is meant to represent that infallible tree; he’s certainly unbreakable, he may even be invincible. For while everybody keeps clobbering him with a shovel to ensure he rests in peace, he digs his way back out of the ground refusing to play dead, an accusing specter to haunt the guilty. As in Birdman last year, a comet again pierces the glistening gloom of the evening sky, though the sight can’t possibly be meant to carry the same shooting star symbolism it did there. Nevertheless this image links the two films together, which is apt considering that both are, in their own ways, tales of survival at any cost. The same theme that obsessed the earlier film has become the motor driving this one. Iñárritu’s Birdman may have been transformed into a bear man here, even eating raw salmon from the river like Penguin in Batman Returns, but the core concept remains unchanged. The premise concerning the struggle for livelihood has been snatched right out of the modern urban milieu that served it in the earlier film and, the clock rewound, set smack down in the midst of the wild frontier where it was a literal struggle for life or death. On his last legs and under siege from all sides, like the famished, fatigued animals that keep dropping all around him, DiCaprio’s Glass is battling for survival with a desperation even more marked than Michael Keaton’s, and the movie becomes a celebration of his dogged refusal to say die. Having somehow endured the soul-crushing, mercenary grind of moviemaking for decades on end, the director clearly feels an affinity with such indefatigable characters and their tenacious resilience. His protagonist here, by refusing to give up the ghost, makes the quintessential sort of comeback all fading stars dream of.
The Revenant possesses a rare, ravishing mystical beauty, coupled with oblique, off-center camera angles that enhance the frequently surreal imagery. While the historical events are set in Montana and South Dakota, the picture was shot as far afield as Canada and the tip of Argentina, yet looks to be set in the same general terrain as The Bear (1988), capturing virgin sights no camera appears to have ever recorded before. The cinematography puts us in the same position as Lewis and Clark, as these intrepid fur trappers are privileged to see such topographical sights for the first time, before the sumptuous beauty was spoiled by encroaching civilization. Shot in natural light, mostly in the permafrost twilight of the far North, some scenes have the slow burn, sun-dappled ambiance of faded daguerreotypes while others a more elusive, haunting beauty, such as when the mist rolls down off the mountains.
Shots like that of a leaf frozen over so that we can see what’s trapped inside the clear ice have a sepulcher, otherworldly aura about them. Like Glass, this maple seems suspended in animation somewhere between life and death. Temperamental nature reflects Glass in other ways as well, mirroring his emotions like the surface of a shiny lake. The ominous thunder of an angry god rumbling off in the distance portends roiling avalanches as Glass pushes his way across the landscape on horseback, a dark dot lost in a sea of snow. Ice sickles freeze to his beard as blizzard force gusts create white out conditions and his expelled breathe, as visible as steam rising off the waters of this white hell, extends by way of creeping fog all the way to the absconding scoundrels who left him for dead. Packed full of the snowbound horrors of pioneering days, The Revenant draws into the open the same sadistic mean streak that colored enjoyment of Birdman. Commentators have noted the excessive degree of decoratively lensed, breathtakingly choreographed gore, with scalpings, animal attacks, Indian attacks, heads riddled with arrows, bare backs sheared by bear claws, and grisly closeups of the animal’s own mortal wounds. The movie even ends in comparable fashion, as hero and villain hack away at one another with Bowie knives and hatchets. Though it couldn’t be claimed that the real Northern frontier was any less brutal than this, it’s still startling to see such glorious scenery serving as backdrop for gruesome bloodlettings. The Revenant becomes as grueling an endurance test for viewers as it is for Glass. Iñárritu is dealing with man in conflict with the primordial elements in this one, a theme that appears to have become quite popular of late with movies like The Martian, In the Heart of the Sea, All is Lost, Life of Pi, Wild, all vying to remind us how small and insignificant we are. Though set at the top of the world rather than Down Under, The Revenant tends to bring to mind other titles as well, such as Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout, in which an Aborigine shepherded two abandoned children through the Australian outback. It also recalls Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which was filmed in the Amazon river basin, closer to the Mexican director’s own latitude and longitude.
This is readily apparent at the beginning, when the trappers escape from the arrows launched by indigenous hostiles and float downriver on a flat bottom boat, much the way the fur trappers did in Howard Hawk’s The Big Sky. When his companions try to lug Glass’ stretcher over inhospitable terrain, including icy rivers full of rushing water and mountains slick with packed snow, it seems as insane an undertaking as the opening scene of Herzog’s film, where the native bearers toiled to hoist refined ladies in biers over sheer cliffs with thousand foot drops. Glass’s transporters here might just as well be attempting to heave him up Everest. For every step forward, they slip two steps back; an exercise in futility. Relatively helpless as a human, Glass is ill-equipped to weather the wilds without his gun and survival tools in tote, so it’s no surprise he takes on bear form to ward off potential predators, making them believe he’s more burly and threatening than he really is. Abandoned by his own kind, separated from the stampeding herd, he’s not so different from that big bull bison that finds itself singled out and at the mercy of a pack of ravening wolves. Proceeding to take it down, he’s well aware the fate of the buffalo could just as easily be his own in this dog eat dog world. Deprived of his musket in this rapacious terrain, a starving Glass is effectively defanged and now impotently aims his walking stick at the elk he’d earlier hunted, as they cross the river in unconcerned safety, far out of range. He can’t even reclaim a meal from those wolves the way lone Pawnee Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud) is able to by means of bow and arrow. While the Native American shares his provisions with Glass out on the plains, throwing scraps to the debased white man who’s subsisting by sheer animal will at this point, the stragglers who return to the fort demanding the money they were promised for staying behind to bury Glass are informed that food comes at a price in capitalist society, where money must be made from any transaction. This outpost of civilization is a harbinger of the strike camps and company stores in movies like The Grapes of Wrath. Akin to exploited migrant workers and miners, the fur trappers discover that they’re in debt to the company that should be paying them wages, having purchased more goods on the expedition than they earned back in pelts. Try as they might they can’t beat the house, yet their minds are so governed by the all mighty dollar that when they’re initially set upon by hostiles, they’re more afraid of losing the fortune they’ve amassed in furs than of losing their lives.
This impressive ambush which opens the picture self-consciously denotes itself as an instant classic, the way the Omaha Beach landing did in Saving Private Ryan. The director is determined to impress viewers with his painstakingly diagrammed, deliberately sustained set piece, the same way he was with his restlessly panning, tracking camera last year. Indeed, this sequence has been modeled after the manner of Birdman itself, with the incomparable cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki tossing us from one protagonist to another as if on a relay race, alighting only briefly before brusquely moving on. Rather than using reverse shots and cuts, the camera simply swings around wildly, panning from one character to another as if in an effort to remain in perpetual motion, as it will again later when Glass in pursued by the war party across the open plain. With arrows whizzing through the air like hissing missiles from every which way, the initial skirmish builds to something both horrifyingly graphic and aesthetically groomed.
It’s been hailed as one of the best such sequences ever staged, deserving to rank alongside the ending of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, but it sets the bar so high right off the bat it becomes impossible for the rest of the movie to sustain such a furious pace. While effectively replacing Spielberg’s mortar bombs and machine gun fire with bows and arrows, this scene actually has the opposite effect of the one in Saving Private Ryan. Rather than disorienting, random chaos it seems as rigidly choreographed as a military campaign, just as full of well-drilled precision and surging pomp and circumstance under Iñárritu’s command. The purpose is to draw attention to itself, the way the one-shot takes did in Birdman, forcing us to admire the formal beauty, painstaking logistics, smooth orchestration, and split-second timing. Rather than involving viewers in the immersive way it was intended, we’re moved to shouts of bravo at the filmmakers’ daring pyrotechnics instead, throwing us out of the picture.
Iñárritu’s flyaway long-takes worked so well in Birdman because we already associated them with that backstage, behind-the-scenes world after years of TV series like The Larry Sanders Show and 30 Rock. In the cramped confines of prop-cluttered theater this patented technique forced us to admire the camera’s agility in jumping over hurdles and through hoops to keep subjects in view. But when IIñárritu has all outdoors to play around in, with nothing obstructing his line of vision in the wide open spaces, this same technique, rather than freeing the camera up, tends to reinforce the very presence of the cinematic frame. Such formalization seems out of place when transposed against a naturalistic backdrop as it is here, clashing with the unlandscaped surroundings and everything within them. His groundskeeper’s technique, shaping and pruning, becomes too theatrical, consciously artificial, leaving us to ponder why the director didn’t take the time to think of something new while his crew was outracing the elements to match up shots before the snow melted right out from under them.
The filmmakers have been quite vocal in advertising all the hardships they were dealt by global warming while filming on location, the uncooperative weather causing untold delays before the production was complete. Moreover, star DiCaprio has cited this as the most harrowing shoot of his career, requiring him to risk life and limb. According to his press releases he hadn’t been immersed in so much frigid water, nearly suffering hypothermia, since he was dunked in a frozen fish tank for Titanic. Such subtle self-promotion is a long standing tradition on the big screen, beginning at least as far back as Lillian Gish, who famously surfed an ice floe for days on end while shooting Way Down East. And when DiCaprio, encumbered in bear skin, sinks from the sight of eagle-eyed Indians into a frozen river, it’s as if he were weighted down by Richard Barthelmess’ own raccoon coat from that film, sucking him into the swirling current and carrying him downstream. Advertising hardships has long been a way for actors to prove how much they’re willing to suffer for their art, how committed they are to realizing the director’s vision. So it seems fitting the star should be cast as a character who suffers Christ’s passion here, resurrection and all. Disregarding the laws of physics as cavalierly as he had in Titanic, a death-defying DiCaprio seems impervious to mortal pain; like Achilles he can’t be killed. Escaping from those pursuing Indian’s on the war path following the kidnapping of their chief Elk Dog’s (Duane Howard) daughter, his Glass takes a flying leap off a cliff on horseback, an old-style Western stunt with modern modifications when his horse is shot right out from under him, and his fall broken by a snow covered spruce. Creeping toward the prone pinto whose coloring matches the stripped bark of denuded trees all around, we momentarily fear he intends to feed again as he earlier had off that bear and bison, the actor purporting to have consumed the buffalo liver raw in the interests of realism. But he instead crawls inside, pulling out the poor pony’s stuffing to make accommodations, then wadding himself in its lining as tightly as Han Solo had Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back, to shield him from the elements.
The entertainment industry, one of the cushiest and most overpaid in the world, eats tall tales like The Revenant’s torturous shoot up with a ladle. So having spread the word to all and sundry how he endured greater adversity than his character without crying uncle, it was a fait accompli that this would be the part that netted DiCaprio that elusive Oscar he’s been chasing ever since he decided to become the next De Niro while making This Boy’s Life. And it seems fitting somehow, considering his role in The Revenant serves as summation of the actor’s entire career up to this point, an even tidier capper than the underrated Revolutionary Road. Getting back to the fundamentals that made DiCaprio a star in the first place, he’s been returned to a dance of death on the icy waves and grown back the facial fur he sported in such disheveled, earlier roles as Gangs of New York and The Aviator.
Again finding himself betrayed and sold out by the shifty confederates who hang him out to dry as he was in The Departed, he has to hike his way through wilds as untamed as those in Blood Diamond, with an indigenous native serving as both conscience and guide. He even cuddles with his dying son in the frigid air, as he did Kate Winslet, while promising, in so many words, never to let go. Having gone lupine as a predatory Wall Street financier a few years back, Leo the Lion proves he’s outgrown dancing with wolves these days, setting his sights on even bigger game by going all Grizzly Adams for this one, wrestling a bear as spectacularly as Davy Crocket ever did. The actor cuts quite a figure sauntering around in his bearskin rug and it seems to complete that grizzled look he’s been striving for ever since he first worked with Scorsese, finally eradicating the perception of himself as just another pretty boy, an image that’s been holding him back. Given its dark motifs, shifting moods and air of orthodox spiritual solemnity, The Revenant is like something to emerge from somber Russia, with little beyond Tom Hardy’s quirky character turn to lighten the ponderous weight. Kamchatka in Russia was the land of the great Irkuiem God bear, so it seems fitting that the creature should be adopted as DiCaprio’s sigil animal here, just as the wolf was in his Wall Street movie. He takes its skin as his own covering and claws as a puka shell necklace. Adorning himself in such fashion, Glass appears to appropriate its other traits as well. Subsuming this bear allows him to take on its powers, much the way many native tribes take on the attributes of a totem animal as their guiding spirit. In Amores Perros, Iñárritu reduced humans to the level of dogs, so it shouldn’t be surprising his star so closely resembles a bear here, hampered down in its fur coat as he is. Only grunts and strangled animal growls can escape his lacerated vocal chords, and even after Glass cauterizes the wound with gunpowder, striking flint to make fire, the water he swills gurgles right back out. Eventually he’ll start frothing at the mouth as if he’d gone rabid.
His initial mauling starts off as well as such things can be expected to, with an unseen animal shambling toward him through the tall brush immediately after we first clap eyes on the cubs, knowing where baby bears go mama bear follows. But the movie provides an ecological excuse for the historical attack by arguing that it was just protecting its young, same as Glass is attempting to protect his own. The camera captures some great point-of-view shots as the creature’s panting fogs up the lens, putting audiences in the thick of the action right along with the victim, seeing things from his perspective as it places its massive mitt on his head so we can fully appreciate the size of its talons. Surpassing the Indian attack, at times like this The Revenant comes close to being a more fully immersive experience, attempting to impart the impression that we are there.
This deadly animal encounter is one of the movie’s most thrilling moments, made all the more fascinating by the mystery the filmmakers have purposely built up around it by refusing to reveal how it was done. They’ve only gone so far as to insist that no real bears were harmed in the making, since no real bears were used at all. So it’s to the FX wizards’ credit that this scene-stealing ursine, which is even accorded a closeup, facing the camera full on, only looks fake once, when it rolls downhill dead. Still the admission that it was pure CG is odd considering purist Iñárritu’s insistence on complete authenticity on all other fronts, such as his uncompromising desire to shoot only in natural light and on actual locations, rather than resorting to the faster, more economical means of green screen technology, the easy way out.
Glass’ story has been twisted and torn, highly fictionalized by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith’s script to serve the movie’s more poetic aspirations. Here he’s been accorded a vengeance-bent motivation similar to John Wayne’s in The Searchers, following his family’s massacre. And revenge proves a wonderful motivating factor, imparting Glass with the tenacity to cling so doggedly to life. A common Western motif concerns that of the gunslinger searching since childhood for the man who killed his father, but The Revenant puts a whole new twist on the tale by having Glass demand retribution from those who killed him, burying him alive without his even having died first. Like a wrathful specter, he vows vengeance on the assassins who did him in, even crawling back from the grave to get it, pursuing them relentlessly like Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High. Dragging himself across the trackless wastes on hands and knees, the way Patrick Wilson did with a broken leg in Bone Tomahawk, only the one thought spurring him on (“He knows how far I came to find him.”), Glass is the image of some twisted Lon Chaney nightmare. His torturous trek back to civilization becomes a search for spiritual salvation, one most of the other character’s engage in as well. Since the vengeance-bent people populating the film are, like Glass, all seeking retribution in one form or another, the keynote of saving grace seems the only thing separating man from beast. And it’s a benediction only granted to those few in The Revenant who find a means to slake their blood lust.
Too young yet to have become as thoroughly corrupt as fellow trapper Fitzgerald, we know Jim Bridger warrants God’s favor by his acts of kindness. He places his water canteen on Glass’ grave and silently leaves that abandoned old Indian woman he stumbles across in the gutted village his rations rather than alerting his companion to her presence. He’d volunteered to forfeit his share of the profits from the expedition just to stay behind and watch over his wounded companion as pallbearer and then shows true integrity by guiltily refusing the blood money offered him at the fort, knowing he and Fitzgerald never fulfilled their end of the bargain to give Glass a Christian burial. Penultimate proof that he’s been graced occurs when Cpt. Andrew’s (Domhnall Gleason) gun misfires when he tries to execute Bridger for his part in the treachery. The boy seems to have been granted a reprieve by divine intervention (“the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”), the momentary delay allowing cooler heads to prevail. Poor Will Poullter will probably be forever remembered for playing Kenny in We’re the Millers as Anthony Michael Hall was typed as the quintessential geek after all those John Hughes movies he made in the ‘80s, instantly erasing from mind any other fine work he’s done since. Poullter is a born comedian with a face formed for slapstick, but (like Hall himself over the past several decades) is seeking to alter that less than flattering image with a more diversified range of roles in movies like the action-oriented franchise The Maze Runner. With his conflicted, guilt-wracked Bridger, who reluctantly goes along with Fitzgerald’s insistence that they preempt the inevitable by burying their bone alive, it’s an auspicious about-face, the director going an impressive way toward drawing out a whole new facet of the actor’s talent. Rather than striving for humor as he had in Birdman, Iñárritu suppresses all sign of it in Poullter, and while far less heralded than those of his cast mates, dramatic vets all, his performance is nearly as impressive. By not trying to play larger-than-life like the leads, he keeps his work well within recognizable human bounds. But when you’re as good at comedy as this kid is, there’s no need to fight the natural gifts you’ve been given as many comedians tend to do, wanting to be taken seriously as thespians.
The generous, big souled Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud), as warmhearted as the circle of fire he builds to warm Glass in the snow fields, embodies the movie’s fundamental concept of grace most eloquently of all. While the self-professed Christian whites leave Glass for dead, it’s this seeming savage he solicits help from who heals him through holistic remedies. He would’ve been dead many times over if the Pawnee hadn’t fed and sheltered him, taking Glass under his wing during a blizzard and drawing him back to life. Through Hikuc, Glass discovers kindness and a measure of grace even in the savage wilds, all red of tooth and claw. And in addition to being better equipped to survive exposure to the elements, Hikuc proves morally superior as well. Despite the fact that Sioux killed his family, he doesn’t want to exact the sort of revenge Glass is seeking. According to his philosophy, revenge is in the hands of the creator, which seems just a slight rephrasing of the biblical adage that ‘vengeance is mine, sayeth the lord.’ Hikuc is a man who has his head screwed on right, his priorities in good order. He’s thankful for the simple pleasures – a full stomach, a warm fire, the feel of soft snowflakes falling on the tongue.
Glass too is seeking to temper his urge to kill, find the God the faithless Fitzgerald, having gone squirrely, rejects in that story he relates about a pine forest sprouting up from nowhere, an ocean of scrub. The Revenant is full of Oscar-worthy supporting turns, some no more than mere vignettes but it was Tom Hardy who scored the movie’s only other acting nom and one can understand why. He is among of the most ubiquitous character actors we have working today, so much so he was even cast opposite himself in Legend this same year. Hardy’s so good at what he does, sublimating his own appearance and personality in order to meld into the woodwork of whatever role he happens to be playing, audiences haven’t even begun recognizing him by sight yet. Equally camouflaged in The Revenant, viewers will have to do a double take before it dawns that this was the same guy from Mad Max. To his Fitzgerald, Glass’ lingering death becomes an increasing inconvenience, forcing the loon to try reasoning with him in a way he deems logical. Trying to persuade Glass to give up the ghost so that they can be about their business rather than selfishly putting their lives in further jeopardy, he decides to help fate along when the stubborn little mule refuses to kick the bucket. Like DiCaprio, Hardy’s playing a part intended to embody concepts out of frontier folklore, but despite raising our hair at his amusingly outrageous antics, he seems to exist outside the context of the film, failing to impart it with an appropriate sense of menace. If his Fitzgerald weren’t clearly off his nut, Glass and the Indian war party would actually seem more alarming to us, inexorable forces of nature in their obsessive, inhumanly resolute pursuits. With a kerchief wrapped around his head like Yankee Doodle Dandy, when the skittish rogue removes the wrapping revealing he’s been scalped, the indication is that he lost his mind along with his head, or at least a significant part of his temporal lobe, the part dictating conscience and social inhibition. The loss of his hairpiece has had the same effect as a full frontal lobotomy so he’s clearly not all there any longer. Laughing at inopportune moments he seems slightly askew, always a beat or two off, and out of synch with the world around him. A tad loco, with those bugging eyes, his unpleasant experience at the hands of ‘savages’ has understandably cooled him on their kind. Yet by movie’s end, he’s gone savage himself, running around scalping others.
In the interest of historical accuracy, the movie has been sprinkled with a smattering of accented regional dialects. In addition to the almost impenetrable variations on English we have to contend with the translations from French, Arikara and Pawnee provided by the plethora of subtitles. The failure of people to understand one another’s language, hindering effective communication, instigates a clash of cultures as surely as it did in Iñárritu’s earlier Babel. That movie was likewise highlighted by an epic trek across one of America’s last frontiers, the great Southwestern desert, the flip side of the equally hostile and tortuous frozen north here. As with many of the director’s films, The Revenant presents multiple story strains streaming toward an event horizon, as we try following Glass and Fitzgerald’s twin journeys back to civilization, while Glass himself is pursued by Elk Dog’s raiding party hot on his trail. Fitzgerald who has hated Indians ever since he lost his head, and Elk Dog, the Indian chief on the warpath because his daughter was kidnapped by whites, harbor racial enmity running so deep they will never come to a complete cessation of hostilities, but the Glass character is intended as a borderline case. Having gone native once, lived among Indians, married a squaw and been blessed with a half-breed son, this Glass is linked with Native American trackers and pathfinders and, being so, proves more innately familiar with the terrain than any of his fellow trappers. Sensate, he seems so attuned to the wilds all around him we don’t wonder that he manages to find God in the wilderness, at one point stumbling upon an ancient, abandoned French missionary settlement in the middle of seemingly nowhere, its shattered walls decorated with still faintly recognizable religious saints and iconography.
The anachronistic image seems so surreal it might be a mirage, same as that boat inexplicably lodged in the top of a tree near the end of Aguirre. Like the Indians themselves, Glass only takes from the land what he needs to survive, thanking mother earth afterward for providing her bounty, and ascribes to native beliefs in animism. The dead keep saving his life, providing him with meat or skin to protect him from hunger and cold. Just as he’d gnawed on the bones of that bear that killed him and uses the pelt it provides to keep warm, he pats his fallen pinto appreciatively as a spiritual brother for his sacrifice. Poking his head out of the horse carcass in which he’d sought refuge during the blizzard, into the welcoming light of the rising sun, it’s as if he’d been born again, emerging from the belly of a beast with the heart of a lion. Similarly, Hikuc buries Glass in a tepee from which he again emerges reborn, a resurrected Christ figure with flowing hair and beard. As Glass later puts it before setting out in pursuit of Fitzgerald, “I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I’d done it already.” This Lazarus like specter keeps coming back, his miraculous series of deaths and resurrections serving as a form of spiritual rebirth, with Glass dragging himself down the road to salvation, a path as twisting and turning as that spiral maze on the canteen Bridger leaves him. He must learn to crawl before he can walk like a man, become a human being in the Native American sense by attaining spiritual enlightenment. On his own sort of walkabout he has to see the light before he’s deemed worthy of entering it. As they did in Dances with Wolves and Little Big Man, the Indians that initially attack the trappers become more and more sympathetic as the film wears on, while wicked whites increasingly alienate us. First they kill off Glass’ son Hawk, who had fought his way back to life after suffering third degree burns as a boy when his village was put to the torch by British redcoats, then string up his pacifist friend Hikuc, unable to see anything beyond his red skin. While they express a desire to shoot some civilization into the savages, it’s these shaggy, pelt-clad whites who seem more barbaric to us than the Indians do. Elk Dog tells French trapper Placard, who affirms that all men are savages, that whites stole everything from them, horses, land, and even his daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), who thankfully abstains from her own instinctive demand for redress after threatening to castrate the man who raped her. Adding insult to injury she’s traded for two horses, as if this Arikara princess were worth so little in the eyes of the white world.
Refusing to let a goading Fitzgerald provoke him to anger and cautioning his hot-headed son against retaliation, a self-defeating prospect in a white dominated world (“They don’t hear your voice! They just see the color of your face.”), Glass was always the type to keep his cool before, rather than being prone to violence. The movie’s dramatic arc centers on whether he will continue on his violent present path, his overweening biological instinct to avenge his offspring (“All I had was my boy… but he took him from me.”) the way the bear that mauled him had, defending her own cubs, and Elk Dog does. The war chief finds his own urge to kill fading however, once his daughter is returned to him, and in so doing it effectively negates those same savage instincts in his vengeance-bent white counterpart Glass.
Rather than finishing off Fitzgerald for instance, Glass releases him in the purifying river waters, as the current sweeps him downstream, to a more divinely ordained fate. But this ending still poses the ethical problem of how Glass’ surrendering Fitzgerald to certain death at the hands of the Arikara is any preferable to having killed him himself. Directly or indirectly, he would still seem to have blood on his hands whether he committed the actual deed. Still, by terminating his Virgin Spring-like quest for vengeance, Glass finds himself walking in the example of Christ instead, turning the other cheek. It seems a peculiarly Christian object moral lesson to be taught through the pantheistic prism of First Contact, but Glass nevertheless finds himself blessed with the same keynote of grace as all those other characters who’ve obtained similar absolution by abstaining from violence – Bridger, Hikuc, Powaqa. He’s recompensed for this act of mercy, sign of God’s sanction, when Elk Dog spares his own life, his line of imposing painted warriors filing past, leaving Glass untouched. Which is ironic considering he’s now ready to meet his maker and be reunited with his loved ones, having purified his soul. When Glass’ eyes glaze over as if he had glaucoma, they resemble crystal clear pools frozen and fogged. He seems possessed by the spirits, looking beyond this world, having caught a glimpse of the enticing phantasms that populate the next. This man who cheated death so often is finally prepared to accept it with open arms, at the very point it graciously passes him over.