“I ought to be God to you.”
If you’ve watched the Discovery Channel in recent months you might have noticed a trend: Pretty much every show is about a few chums running around in the woods trying to “survive.” Each one has its own hook, usually a permutation on the individuals involved: they’re married, they’re blindfolded, they’re naked. It’s nonsense, but it speaks to a truth about American folklore: We love a good survival tale.
Just look at Hollywood. In the past year alone we’ve had Unbreakable, The Martian, In the Heart of the Sea, Everest, and Mad Max—films that invariably confront the human condition as it exists in a state of desperation. We’re drawn to these stories for two reasons: On the one hand, we enjoy the spectacle of survival—the torment of experiences we can hardly even imagine (much the same way we appreciate a good horror film from time to time). But, on the other hand, what makes survival stories different from schlocky, boob-ridden slasher flicks is the competing appeal to our collective human pride. Survival tales are humanist in nature—they attach primacy to the individual and eschew spiritual tropes of divine rescue or deliverance.
The Revenant is unique among these stories, so much so that I would argue it’s not even really a survival tale, at least not in the traditional sense. Whereas films like Cast Away, The Grey, and 127 Hours celebrate hope, ingenuity, and humanist questions about man being in control of his own destiny, The Revenant broaches a new idea that might be described as “transcendental survivalism.” It’s about the taming of nature and the displacement of God (in the form of the Arikara, or “Ree,” people) by the forces of white, European settlers. The Revenant does not disavow religion in any atheistic or even agnostic sense, but rather relegates “God” to an inferior, mortal presence—below that of man.
The film is surrealist in tone: It depicts a world that is not our own. Like something out of a Neil Gaiman or Haruki Murakami tale, The Revenant subtly tells the story of a violent struggle between two deities or “spiritual houses”—the God of Nature and the God of Industry. In that sense, it’s a theological allegory for the 19th century—the story of God during the Industrial Revolution.
It’s never explicitly stated in the film, but the events of The Revenant take place in 1823—the year of the real Hugh Glass’s epic feat of survival. It was also around this time that the idea of Transcendentalism began to take root among American writers and philosophers. The movement was based in part on European Romanticism but also on the idea of Unitarianism, a Christian view of God as a single being—separate from Christ—that places heavy emphasis on free will and rational thought. It posits that God is more spectator than conductor—a mere “presence” of divinity, ancillary to logic and reason.
In the 19th century, American Transcendentalism took the idea a step further, stressing self-reliance and openness to ideas, as symbolized by the western frontier. It seemed to demote the Abrahamic God to that of a demigod. In a 1963 history of Transcendentalism, historian George Hochfield wrote about the similarities between Transcendentalism and Native American spirituality, describing the former as “the fullest, most radical, rashest expression of that vision we have had: the ‘American dream’ at its moment of greatest intensity and innocence.”
“[Transcendentalism] healed the split between mind and matter and restored the intellectual to a place in the world of action.”
This is the cultural, philosophical, and political setting of The Revenant. But, like those gimmicky survival shows, there’s a twist, a wrench thrown into the machine of that entire philosophy: What happens to that American dream when you strip man down to his rawest, most animalistic form?
*Warning: spoilers ahead!*
After seeing The Revenant for the second time, I walked out into the lobby to overhear a moviegoer mention something about how the film had “a lot of Christian undertones,” namely with regards Glass’s relationship with his son, Hawk, and how Hawk was “sacrificed” for the sake of some greater moral destiny. I don’t buy it. Transcendentalism may have some Christian underpinnings, but not so much this film. It’s tempting to assign Christian symbols to any story that deals with family, sacrifice, and resurrection (the word “revenant” literally means someone who has returned from the dead). But I think this tendency is a bit knee-jerk. We’ve been beaten over the head with Christian symbols—both in film and in literature—and I think it’s time to dig a bit deeper. Even if this were the intent of the filmmakers, it is not of interest to me and or this essay—and I’m a firm believer in the idea that artists relinquish interpretive authority over their work once it’s published.
There are a few reasons why I do not concede to any overt Christian undertones in The Revenant, the most obvious of which is the symbolic significance of the Arikara (“Ree”) people. If you accept that the film holds Christian significance then you must assign symbolic meaning to the role of Native Americans in that version of the story. For a film that affords due respect to First Peoples (director Alejandro G. Inarritu cast many Native Americans without any acting experience), it would be quite tone-deaf to assign so much textual significance to a religion that originated on the other side of the world. It would seem to uphold the role of Native Americans as mere extras in a tale about white men, which is its own form of cultural neo-colonialism. Despite the race of its lead roles, The Revenant is not a story about white men.
The other reason why I don’t buy the Christian symbolism has to do with the central point I am trying to make, which is that The Revenant is a story about the overthrow of the idea of God by “civilized,” industrialized man. The spiritual presence in The Revenant is mortal, and even somewhat feeble—not at all Christian or Abrahamic. In one of my favorite scenes, Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy) recounts a story his father used to tell about how, starving and delirious, he found God on top of a tree. “Turns out, he’s a squirrel,” Fitzgerald says, adding that his father “shot and ate that sonofabitch.”
Native American spirituality frequently assigns deistic status to plants and animals, if only for its reliance on metaphors. Glass’s dead Pawnee wife is overheard claiming, “The wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots.” His son, Hawk, is obviously named after an animal. There are countless representations of wild animals throughout the film, and in each one there is a certain reverence given. Hikuc, the Pawnee hunter who helps nurse Glass back to health, is seen scaring wolves away from a bison carcass, only to feast on the beast’s raw flesh. Glass later sleeps inside a dead horse and, upon leaving it, grazes its skin in a sign of gratitude. Even the fur trappers who find Glass after being mauled by a grizzly bear seem to show respect for the animal’s ferociousness.
All this points to a theology that is more aligned with Transcendentalist and Native American philosophies than with Christianity.
Fitzgerald, as the primary antagonist, spurns this thinking. He is alone in his disdain for animals—or rather, in his unwillingness to see them as anything but food or marketable goods. In that sense, he is the emblem of American industrialism, a man who surrenders his own life for the sake of “a living.” (Fitzgerald literally claims he “has no life”—only “a living” through the selling of beaver pelts.) His attitude reflects the mechanism by which civilization is able to “conquer” the natural world, to tame it and extract its riches—the “riches,” in this case, being beaver pelts. His reference to the mortality of God in the form of a squirrel that was killed for its calories only furthers the idea that industry is a more powerful force than traditional spiritualism. His words then hold greater weight when he tells Bridger, “I ought to be God to you.”
But even when we put this dichotomy of animal reverence aside, there remains a pervasive sense of deistic mortality. One of the more overt references to this concept comes at the end of the film, after Glass mortally wounds Fitzgerald and it becomes clear that he is about to get his revenge. Instead of finishing him off, Glass says, “Revenge is in God’s hands,” and releases him to the river, allowing him to float directly into the hands of the Arikara Indians. The statement is in direct reference to Hikuc’s earlier comment that “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s pretty clear that the film seeks to appoint God-like status to Native Americans. This is not to suggest that the Arikara or Pawnee Indians were some morally pure vestiges of the divine, but merely that they reflected a connection with the “Creator”—the spirit, or even just milieu, that humbly asserts man’s position below that of nature, that accepts a subservience to nature rather than the other way around. I don’t think it was a mistake that many lines of dialogue delivered by Native Americans were dubbed over, evoking a sense of metaphysical dignity. Nature, in this sense, is indistinguishable from God. The fact that Native American populations were decimated over the course of the next century further highlights the tragic mortality of this “deity,” which might also be thought of as transcendental philosophy itself.
On its surface, The Revenant is a story about revenge and survival. On a deeper level, it’s about how those two motivations factor into a generational battle between the (God-like) forces of nature and industry—a sort of perverted Armageddon. What purpose does violence serve in nature, and what purpose does it serve within the arms of capitalism? Let’s go back to that scene with Hikuc. After recounting the loss of his family at the hands of Sioux Indians, he said, “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands.” When he said that, he seemed to be suggesting that vengeance is an arrogant, unnatural instinct—a futile endeavor that runs counter to the will of nature. He doesn’t seem to be eschewing violence itself—just when it comes in the form of revenge.
This is interesting, because there are really only three motivations for violence in this film: survival (or self-defense), revenge, and monetary reward. Hikuc seems to suggest that there is nothing unnatural—or even unethical—about violence when it comes to survival and self-defense. It is only a mechanism of survival, illustrated by Glass killing a grizzly bear or a pack of wolves killing a bison. It is just survival.
What’s interesting about this duel between nature and industry is that the latter introduces new motivations for violence—namely, revenge and monetary reward. First, consider Fitzgerald’s motivation from scene one: pelts. He is more concerned about the pelts than his own life, because, as he says, the pelts represent his ability to make a living. Every action he takes after that—from killing Hawk to stealing from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company—is driven by an overriding dependence on money. This is a product of the civilized, industrial world shoehorned into the wilderness of the American frontier.
Revenge is a less obvious byproduct of that same force. Glass, being sympathetic to the natives, is suspicious of commercial instincts. He may be dependent on monetary gain to support his son, but it is not paramount to him. He is a survivalist, in the truest sense, a man who can live off the land in the same way the Native Americans do. In that sense, he is caught between two worlds. His instinct for revenge is a product of the industrialized world—a relic of his societal origins. But his affinity for nature and his devotion to family are products of environmental acclimation. He surrenders his instinct for revenge when he says “revenge is in God’s hands,” and quite literally places Fitzgerald into the hands of the Arikara. In doing so, Glass completely surrenders to the “Creator” and accepts man’s humility before the will of nature.
The film ends with Glass and the Arikara people exchanging looks, seeming to suggest a momentary triumph of nature over the encroaching forces of industrialization. But we all know how the story really ends. It ends with the infectious spread of industry throughout the American continent, and the relegation of its native inhabitants to reservations. It ends with a victory for commercial interests.
But the world that The Revenant inhabits is not entirely loyal to physical reality. It’s a somewhat absurdist take on the 19th century conflict between nature and industry. As mentioned, it’s an allegory in which the Arikara people assume the status of mortal demigods, there but to affect what little measure of justice that has been endowed by nature, or the “Creator.” They are merely the vectors of that force.
The vector for industrial forces is the fur trade. The film’s narrative manifestations of that trade are the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the Arikara-friendly French fur trappers. The two may compete over the access to furs, but they are unified in their wanton extraction of natural resources, as well as their callous disregard for native peoples. In case you missed it, the sign the French trappers hung over Hikuc’s body read, “On est tous des sauvages,” or “We are all savages.”
There are many ways that sign can be interpreted, but it seems lazy to chalk it up to the pessimistic, nihilistic conclusion that all humans are just vicious at heart. That may or may not be true, but I don’t think this discussion is at the heart of The Revenant. It’s just not a nihilistic film. The competing forces of the film—industry vs. nature, civilization vs. Transcendentalism—reject the idea that life is meaningless, if for completely different reasons. It may be true, in the Nietzschean sense, that “God is dead,” but the film seems to resist the idea that life is insignificant.
To go a step further, I don’t even think The Revenant is a pessimistic film (although it is certainly brutal). The film is replete with scenic shots so stunning and majestic you wonder how in the hell they could have been captured on this planet. Those landscapes are so beautiful that they almost seem to constitute their own character—a force on the events of the film as powerful as any other. It implies some deeper understanding about the futility of questions about good vs. evil in the face of such majesty. And they speak to the film’s Transcendentalist underpinnings: an esteem for nature and a celebration of the individual in the thick of survival. The dream sequences of Glass with his son and wife further express a commitment to hope and benevolence that the rest of the film denies.
But, getting back to the French sign slung over Hikuc’s corpse, I think it is best understood within the context of a discussion about how commercial interests affect our connection to the natural world. It seems to suggest that we are all savages—only when deprived of a meaningful connection to nature. This idea is expressed more figuratively in a comment from Glass’s dead wife: “The wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots.” Glass has strong roots, as do the Native Americans defending their lands from the encroachment of industrialization. The French fur trappers, Fitzgerald, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company—they do not. They are the savages. They are the weak, untethered models of civilization, yielding to the forces of industry and wrecking havoc before they return to the earth. They are the minions that rape and pillage the land for its riches, at times “converting” some natives over to their twisted faith in the form of trade and protection. They express precious little regard for the flora and fauna of the land, and spread like a plague over the vast, unblemished lands of the western frontier—a perversion of the Transcendental American dream—equipped with the most effective cultural contagion ever invented: capitalism.
For me, one of the most unnerving shots in the whole film occurs during the opening battle sequence: A large, burly white man—at first hardly noticeable—slowly trudges toward the center of the screen. Shirtless and brandishing a fiddle in one hand (a pretty overt metaphor) and a pistol in the other, he executes a horse and mutters something about not needing the animals anymore. The suddenness of the action combined with his eerily calm demeanor pulls our eyes to him and him alone. Our attention now focused, the camera begins trailing this ghoulish figure, his pale white backside filling most of the screen as he meanders through a chaotic spasm of violence with no discernible front line. He is not afraid. He just looks annoyed, like the specter of some tycoon facing a temporary delay in production. This whole bloody mess is only a speed bump to him, because tomorrow his infectious subjugation of the land will continue. Because this is the destiny of the inhabitants of industrialized America—humans and animals alike.