One of the memorable (and most talked about) scenes in The Revenant is an epic fight between Leonardo DiCaprio and a grizzly bear. The bloody brawl occurs early in the film and is the plot’s inciting incident. Gravely injured by the bear, 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is left for dead by his fellow hunters/fur-traders and must survive in the wilderness in the dead of winter.
As if it wasn’t already hard enough to survive the Pawnee tomahawks and arrows, subzero temperatures, blizzards, dehydration, and treacherous men within his own group (most notably Tom Hardy’s villainous character Fitzgerald), Glass must do it all having been maimed, mauled, and flayed by a bear.
But the death match with the bear is also thematically significant, as it sets up the film’s existential grappling with the meaning of humankind as unique (or not) among the creatures of the earth. What makes a man different from a bear? In their brutal fight, Glass and grizzly are evenly matched. Their fight is mirrored later in the film by a human-on-human blood bout that is no less savage and similarly choreographed.
Throughout the film, as he survives alone in the wilderness, Glass is purposely made to look and act like a bear. He wraps himself in bear fur as a coat and crawls along the ground. He grabs fish directly from a mountain river and takes bites out of them. He devours flesh directly from the carcass of a buffalo. His most elemental instinct is to protect his young.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, fresh off an Academy Award for a film where a man has fantasies of being bird-like (Birdman), this time explores a story that may as well be called Bearman. (Read our exclusive interview with Iñárritu.)
As it is, the actual title (The Revenant) refers to a mythological, ghostly entity who returns from the dead and terrorizes the living, often with a motive of revenge. And herein lies the difference between Glass and the grizzly: revenge as a motivation; a desire for justice. A grizzly will fight to the death to protect its cubs from harm, but if those cubs are killed, the grizzly will not seek revenge. It has no concept or need for moral justice; it simply must survive.
Humans are different. We are as wired to desire justice as we are to survive. But is justice ours to be accomplished in the same way survival is? Or is revenge “in God’s hands”? This is a question Iñárritu wants to explore.
Certainly both motivations—revenge and survival—are salient themes in our world today. Whether terrorists avenging western military intervention, western militaries avenging terrorist attacks, or lone gunmen avenging some cause or another by spraying bullets into a crowd, bloodshed is everywhere on account of man’s desire for justice. We see this in many recent films, whether this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Sicario, or in the revenge fantasies of Quentin Tarantino’s ouerve. In their pursuit and defeat of evil, these films offer audiences catharsis, conflicted though it may feel.