And what a plight it is. The bearfight is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the course of the film we endure all manner of wince-worthy survival tactics: burning wounds closed with gunpowder, riding a horse off a cliff to escape Indians, sleeping naked in a still-warm animal carcas or (literally) clawing his way out of the grave. If there is anything to criticize in The Revenant it might be that it is unrelenting, over-the-top and humorless. For 156 minutes, there is no relief. But that is kind of the point.
At a time when the world is increasingly brutal, when beheadings and inhumane torture are fixtures on YouTube, films like The Revenant ask the valid question of what makes humans distinguishible from beasts. Liam Neeson’s wolf-centric The Grey and this year’s Beasts of No Nation ponder similar things.
The Revenant’s frighteningly lawless 19th century western frontier is a suitable proxy for the tenuous climate of our world today. Vestiges of God and religion’s moral grounding are there, in ruins and faint echoes. We see the visage of Jesus on a crumbling wall inside the ruins of a frontier church. One character tells a story of “finding God” in a tree, only to discover it was just a squirrel (which he promptly shot and ate).
God may be distant in The Revenant, in a world where the necessities of material survival hardly afford space for spiritual contemplation. But the Almighty is there. In the betrayer’s guilty conscience and the betrayed’s longing for justice; in the tension between self-preservation and sacrificing for a friend; in the sublime beauty of raging rivers and ferocious avalanches… He is there.
This is a film about wilderness survival and fights with bears, people and nature, so it is naturally full of violence and disturbing imagery. There is battle violence, including implied scalping. There are bloody knife fights and arrows through people’s faces. There is bear-on-human violence, including gory aftermath shots of what the bear did to a man’s body. There is also violence toward animals, including a man eating straight from a buffalo’s carcass and another man cutting open a dead horse, removing its organs and using the steaming carcass as a warm place to sleep, naked (we don’t see any of the nudity). There is also a fair amount of language and one brief scene of rape (no nudity). The film is intentionally raw and over-the-top, so squeamish viewers and the faint of heart should think carefully about seeing it.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker, 2010) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013). You can follow him @brettmccracken or at brettmccracken.com.