Late review, how’s that for a revenant! Get it? A revenant? Lee reviews The Revenant because it was released in the UK in 2016.
Revenge is a difficult state of mind to give a character, as it often lends itself to the sort of predictability best likened to mid-2000s Disney Channel classic “That’s So Raven” and the power of clairvoyance wielded by the iconic Raven therein; we know the moment she uses it, she’ll only make things worse for herself and everyone she knows.
But we’ve seen iconic films handle revenge well in the past (and yes, I’m just going to walk away from the whole “That’s So Raven” thing): The Godfather showed us that revenge comes at a cost, but it still feels cathartic to see Michael wipe the other families out after what they’ve put his family through. And even if it was an accident, it still feels great to watch Dorothy clumsily murder the Wicked Witch of the West. Distilled, it becomes a matter of balance: can the motive of revenge be justified on some level due to the amount of trauma that character has gone through, and will the price for retaliation ultimately cost more than it’s worth? It’s a simple breakdown of Catharsis vs. Repercussion, and if the scale tips too far one side or the other, ultimately the character will lose the audience’s support and, eventually, attention.
There are films that do a good job of ignoring the scale. No Country for Old Men being one; a film where nobody is justified and everyone’s an asshole bar one powerless man, which still makes for an unsettling and terrible watch. The Revenant (finally) is not one of these great films that buck the trend.
Firstly, there’s too much done to our protagonist Glass, the challenge before reaching any state of catharsis is much too high. Mauled by bear, abandoned, son killed, left for dead, hunted and attacked; it’s just too much to possibly justify the revenge he wants out of it. It’s a marvel to watch his slow recovery, and we definitely want to see him do something after, but was that something ‘kill the guy who killed your son?’ Not likely, because it seems small potatoes after the ludicrous amounts of surviving he went through to get there.
Secondly, there’s absolutely no repercussion at all. Glass gets his revenge and probably dies, peacefully reunited with his dead family. That would be fine and well if, after surviving a great deal, his aim was to be peacefully retired for the rest of days. When the object of catharsis is plain ol’ murder however, it just isn’t connectible in the same light, leaving us feeling both underwhelmed by our hero’s resolve and disappointed that his resolve was to kill a guy.
The scales don’t balance. Especially when we also start to feel a little for antagonist Fitzgerald, who clearly had a terrible childhood and something happen to him that’s messed up his brain. He’s mentally ill on some level, and to try to look forward to Glass killing him just feels wrong.
But perhaps it isn’t that kind of movie. Perhaps we’re not supposed to be sympathetic of Glass, even though we spend two hours watching him suffer and get back on his feet in pursuit of one clear goal. Perhaps it is more simply an exploration of the depths of human despair, and the strength the mind has over the body once we tap into that depth. But, then again, what does that say of Fitzgerald? Is he “evil” because he simply doesn’t care enough? This is all subtext anyway, but even the subtext seems mixed.
And what of the religious imagery? And the bear? Does the bear represent something? Or is the bear just a bear? You can’t have it both ways, Revenant.
More infuriating than its disappointing story and meaning, however, is its justification for most of the events unfolding in the first place. Gleeson’s Andrew Henry, played and written as a man of logic in a sea of vagrants and opportunists, somehow lets Fitzgerald stay behind to watch Glass, ultimately leading to the remaining events of the movie.
Even though, in the short amount of screen time we have had with Fitzgerald by this point, he has already made a case for leaving Glass behind, he has already made a point of disliking Glass’s son who we already know will stay with his father, and he has done little but complain about their company’s failures up until that point. Rather than have him stay in some more organic fashion, say, surprise separation by the natives, or even writing the screenplay so that Fitzgerald doesn’t immediately come across as a huge asshole with a grudge, the screenwriters opt to set the film’s events in motion by sheer absence of logic, leaving the audience to chalk the whole thing up to one big contrivance.
Beautiful cinematography and solid acting will draw you back to this film, and a first watch certainly will grab you, but you’ll walk away disappointed in the resolve, and you’ll find yourself skipping to the images you liked the most on the re-watch rather than churn through the pointless recovery again.