Note: “The Liturgical Year in Cinema” is an ongoing series, a personal exploration of the thematic connections between the Christian calendar and films. February 10 marks the celebration of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter, and time for reflecting upon our own mortality and our need for repentance.
The dead man pulls himself out of the grave. Spittle flies from his mouth and mixes with the surrounding snow as he crawls through slush, grime, and blood. He’s been left for dead, abandoned by his companions in the wintry North American wilderness after his narrow survival of a vicious bear attack. He wanders through the wilderness, driven by vengeance.
The Revenant was recognized this year as an immersive, visceral cinematic experience. We follow Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on his journey across the beautiful-yet-brutal landscape.
“Revenant” means “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.”
Glass is hounded by death, as everything in his environment seems bent on trying to kill him. The surrounding creation is cold, both physically and emotionally, uncaring about his plight for survival. Nearly every human being he encounters along the way attempts to kill him. The lone Native American who helps Glass is hung by French trappers with a sign around his neck: “We Are All Savages.”
Death triumphs over mercy in this savage world. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu shoves our faces in the violence and depravity of it all. Death is inevitable for every human being; it surrounds us, and we cannot escape it.
The Revenant’s thematic twin is Joe Carnahan’s 2012 survival film, The Grey. The film follows Ottway (Liam Neeson) and his oil worker companions as they navigate the Alaskan wild after surviving a plane crash. Surrounded and hunted by a pack of vicious wolves, the men are picked off one by one, a series of deaths in the authoritative grip of nature.
As in The Revenant, death surrounds these men. But while the film could have remained a middling Neeson action thriller—Taken, but with wolves—The Grey is a film about the human capacity for dying well. Nature does not seem to care about each man’s family or faith, but we do not die with indifference. There is grief, contemplation, remorse, an evaluation of one’s life and existence in this world. The cycle of death is found in all of nature, but the unique contribution of humanity to this cycle is our ability to find redemption in death.
(Spoiler alert: What follows compares the final scenes for these two films.)
By the final act of The Revenant, Glass no longer fears death. “I done it already,” he grunts to his rescuers. But is this lack of fear healthy or admirable? While Glass has delayed his own demise, he’s still haunted by death in the memories of his deceased wife and son, as well as his obsession with killing the heinous Fitzgerald, the man who left him for dead. His life is a walking tomb, marked by death, void of meaning beyond vengeance.
Like Glass, Ottway also doesn’t fear death, but his are different motives. He once nearly put a bullet in his own head in a moment of suicidal despair, and this despair hasn’t left his soul. Also like Glass, Ottway has lost his wife to death; unlike Glass, Ottway is ready to join her in death. Having failed to save any of the other survivors in his company, his purpose and meaning have vanished into the grey. When there’s nothing left to live for, he charges headlong into death without hesitation.