Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
— Romans 12:19
I had the great pleasure of getting to see Alejandro Iñárritu’s film The Revenant recently with two of my colleagues from Midwestern Seminary — Owen Strachan, who serves as Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Director of The Center for Public Theology, and Matt Millsap, who serves as Assistant Professor of Christian Studies and Assistant Director of Midwestern’s Library Services. The Revenant tells the ostensibly true story of the fight for survival of frontiersman Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who, while on a fur trading expedition, is left for dead after being mauled by a bear and witnessing the murder of his son.
The three of us were quite affected by the film and later discussed some of its philosophical and theological implications via email. I’ve compiled our conversation below with the hope that those of you who’ve seen the film may find it interesting.
STRACHAN: I read this reflection on The Revenant and I feel it captured the central tension of the movie pretty well, better than I did upon first reflection.
I was originally thinking about the film more as a display of one man’s quest for revenge. The film was incredibly well-made, but that theme in and of itself did not strike me as profound (though visceral). But this review pointed me to the following question: is Iñárritu pondering which force is a stronger motivator in our fallen world? If this is the director’s controlling question, then the film is asking a more profound question than I first thought.
Now, when I see the movie again, I’ll be asking this particular question and charting it throughout the film. I can’t immediately say what Iñárritu’s answer is. I think it might be revenge. But the point is, there really is something profound going on in the film. It’s not simply “a revenge story.”
WILSON: Yes, I thought Glass’s decision at the end was Iñárritu telling us that Glass’s journey, though driven so long by revenge, had forged in him something else. He wanted to execute his own justice but his own unlikely survival probably showed him that there is something more sovereign and indomitable than the human will — what the Pawnee man he meets refers to as “the Creator.”
Glass discovered he could trust the Creator with his own journey of survival, so in the end he decided to trust the creator with Fitzgerald’s fate too.
I wonder about that saying he keeps remembering from his wife too, the bit about how if you watch the branches of a tree in a storm, you will be sure it will fall. But, she says, “The wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots.” Somehow at the end, when he had his chance to kill Fitzgerald, Glass decided his roots were deep enough to help him weather this storm.
MILLSAP: I agree insofar as we’re talking specifically about the end of the film. It seemed to me that the journey was primarily driven by revenge, with Glass reaching an epiphany of sorts when he had Fitzgerald at his mercy following their fight. It’s almost as if he had to be reminded at that moment that love was the more powerful force and that his only option was to relinquish his thirst for revenge over to the Creator.
I’m not saying that his will to survive and find Fitzgerald wasn’t also powered by his love for his son, but I still think, if we’re honest, that revenge was the primary motivator all the way through his decision to forgo recuperation and pursue Fitzgerald immediately so that he would not have the chance to escape.
I find the final shot to be the face of a man who has weighed both revenge and love, ultimately siding with the latter, though just barely.
He may have gone with the Creator, but the thirst for revenge – the sense of self-sovereignty — is always there, underneath the surface.
WILSON: I don’t know if I’d define his other option as “love.” Meaning, I don’t think he’s thinking “Love is better,” even at the end. If we’re identifying his motivation in that ultimate moment as “love,” I’m not sure it would be love for his son that drives him to release his captive anyway; it’d be love for Fitzgerald, which I think it’s obvious he doesn’t have.
What I meant when I said “something bigger forged in him than revenge” was more along the lines of this quasi-religious, nature-as-gauntlet, Native American fever dream sense of “bigness” — the mysterium tremendum? — that he labels as “the Creator.” It’s God he’s thinking about in that last-minute remembrance of what the Pawnee man who saved him said.
My take is that when he got to the end of realizing his quest for vengeance, he decided to hand Fitzgerald over to the one thing greater than human will/determination — the sovereignty of the Creator, the thing he realizes had actually determined his own fate.
I think a lot of people will come away from the film struck with ideas of human resilience, endurance, etc, and certainly the film shows us that. But I think the meaning is more about how Glass was really lucky — blessed? predestined? guided, at least — by something greater. And in the end, at least in that decisive moment, he for the first time surrendered to it. He surrendered to God’s sovereignty at the climactic moment he had planned to exercise his own.
STRACHAN: Well said. Chewing on this. That makes more sense than the simplistic love versus revenge theme. Your argument about the film being ultimately about God/the Great Being/sovereignty makes sense in light of Fitzgerald’s comments around the fire to Bridger about “God as squirrel.” Remember? He tells the story about the trapper who went to find God and he climbed a tree and discovered that God was a squirrel, so he shot it and ate it. That was a funny exchange, obviously, but I also marked it as important when we saw it. The Revenant may really be about “God as squirrel” v. “God as Cosmic Sorter of Human Fates.”
Meaning, Iñárritu is in fact making a movie about the nature and character of God. Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald represents amoral atheism and DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass represents the struggling, imperfect, even tortured search for that which is beyond.
Fitzgerald is all here and now. Survive. Do what you need to keep going. By contrast, Glass is at the very least haunted by something bigger. And ultimately that something bigger in some imperfect but real way grabs him at his lowest point, and keeps him from being Fitzgerald. God stops him from becoming what he hates.
So at the end, he isn’t Fitzgerald. And that is not a soaring victory, but it is something, and says something about both the nature of man and the work of the Supreme Being in the world of man.
WILSON: I think you’re exactly right with the squirrel bit. And what I find delicious is that, of course, at the end, it was the “squirrel” who ate the proud Fitzgerald.
MILLSAP: The sovereignty angle is really insightful. You do have to admit that there were many instances of “luck” in Glass’s favor: he could have been shot in the initial attack, could have died from his mauling, could have starved to death, could have died when found by the Indians, could have died in the waterfall, could have died of hypothermia, could have died from the fall off the cliff, etc. So you’re absolutely right that there’s something more at play than just a standard “will to live” scenario. Glass should be a dead man. But he isn’t.
And Owen, echoing your thoughts on Glass’s spiritual nature vs. Fitz’s materialistic nature, it’s worth pointing out specifically that Glass is the only main character in the movie who seems to have some sort of spiritual grounding that moves beyond a nominal Christianity of “last sacraments” and “Lord’s Prayers.” So yes, I agree Inarritu wants the audience to notice the spiritual nature of Glass and how there is divine assistance aiding his innate, natural will to live.
I like the language you used of “surrender,” as describing Glass’s final actions, Jared. Perfect descriptor. Would it be too far, though, to still find that infused with love? I agree that we aren’t necessarily talking about love for his son. It’s very interesting that the flashbacks focus on his relationship with his wife more so than they do on his relationship with his son, whom he clearly loved deeply as well. And the visions he continues to have — again, his wife.
I think there’s more to this than his wife simply being the means through which the “Creator” is speaking to him or guiding him. There is special significance in his thoughts repeatedly returning to her. Perhaps it might be accurate to say that Glass doesn’t recognize the tension as being between vengeance and love, though when you boil it down, it actually is? Would surrendering one’s will to the Creator be an act of love? I don’t know, maybe I’m just too much of a sap in that regard. But I will say that Glass’s final state with that final shot feels to be one of confusion. He hasn’t quite yet sorted out the magnitude of everything that has transpired.
WILSON: A revenant, of course, is like a ghost, someone who’s returned from the dead or a long, given-up-for-dead absence. The most literal way to read the title is that Glass is the revenant, “back from the dead” to exact revenge. But I think, in a unique way, the notion of God is the real revenant in the movie. Glass has survived so long, almost acting like an animal. He’s forgotten what it’s like to be human, to be connected to something greater than just his appetites and instincts. But he gets glimpses along the way, in his dreams and visions. The dream where he’s standing in the ruins of a church is a great image of this, a great image of himself — one made in the image of God and yet broken, empty, a shell of himself. But there’s something still there, a wisp of the numinous still remains. And in the end, when he’s getting to the point of fulfilling his animal bloodlust and his fleshly thirst for vengeance, he sees those Indians in the distance, a reminder not just of his Pawnee rescuer who reminded him of the Creator’s sovereignty, but of his own humanity and its implications. The sole authority of God to judge returns, rising from the ashes of its dormancy during Glass’ journey. The reality that vengeance belongs to the Lord, in a way, “comes back from the dead.” In the end, it’s God’s sovereignty that is the truer and better revenant.