Beautiful/Brutal: A Critique of “The Revenant”


Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant focuses on the “true story” of American trapper Hugh Glass.  In the early 19th century, Glass was brought on as a scout to aid a fur trading company’s expedition. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki transport the audience to the chaotic American frontier of the country’s infancy to tell an astonishing story of vengeance and rebirth.

Alejandro Iñárritu’s and Emmanuel Lubezki’s comfort in working with one another is perfectly transferred on screen as their natural abilities as storytellers specializing in existential crises are in full force here. Lubezki’s frequent transitions from suffocating close-ups to isolating aerial shots force the viewer to grapple with the significance of humankind. This also helps to elicit such emotion from the actors that the viewer may question their own resolve and wonder what would keep them moving forward. 

Each scene displaying the vastly beautiful and untouched landscape these men lived off of lulls the audience into a false sense of calm that is quickly and brutally stripped away by grisly and tragic battle scenes. This false tranquility is immediately taken away in the opening scene, as The Revenant wastes no time in making the viewer’s heart rate climb. Glass must maneuver through a proverbial wall of death to rescue his son and escape an Arikara Native American attack.

The camera work in this scene pulls the audience into the chaos along with the characters. Most of this scene — as with others throughout the film — is one long shot sans cuts. This invokes the trademark style Iñárritu and Lubezki made famous in their previous collaboration, 2014’s Birdman. The camera quickly zooms in and out to give us different perspectives of the violence and pans between every panicked face as if to tell the audience who is next to die. A beautiful madness of choreography ensues as Glass, his son Hawk, and the surviving crewmen barely escape with their lives.

Lubezki’s close-ups not only capture the emotions of each character, but also allow the viewer to look beyond the characters’ expressive eyes and see what motivates them. Several scenes involve close-ups of Glass near death, breathing heavily in the cold air — his breath allowed to fog up the screen. What keeps us breathing is a question we’re challenged to ask ourselves throughout the film, and which is addressed in the repeated statement, “So long as you draw breath, you fight.”

His labored breathing over the lens — obstructing the audience’s vision — then transforms into clouds gliding through the midday sky. The cinematography in the scene on the frozen ground conveys to the viewer just how numb and shattered Glass is after being mauled by a bear, watching his son be murdered, and ending up left for dead in the middle of winter. It also shows us that his breath is still strong and he has no plans of giving up as he is now consumed by his need for revenge.

Lubezki utilizes the changing of the seasons to show Glass’ rebirth. Knowing that the entire film was shot using almost only natural light, this adds to the appreciation one could likely have for the effort that went into making this film. Glass literally climbs out of his own grave at the end of a harsh winter to be born again and make his two hundred mile odyssey through the untamed wilderness at the advent of spring — the season of new life.

Glass must endure tribulations that almost become comical in their difficulty and his ability to survive them. What keeps us going? For the sinister Fitzgerald, it is a new life in Texas. For the Arikara Chief, it is retrieving his kidnapped daughter. For Glass, it was his son, but has since become revenge. As he grows closer to his goal, winter is upon us again, and Glass is on the verge of becoming corrupted by his quest for vengeance.

The nature of relationships are a common theme in Iñárritu’s films, specifically parent-child relationships. The Revenant also focuses heavily on nature. Couple that with religious iconography seen throughout the film and the audience could consider the pristine and almost virgin-like scenery to be the presence of the almighty.

We see everyone in this film surviving off what is provided for them by nature. Several characters represent various stages one goes through in becoming corrupted by revenge. A subplot within the film involves an Arikara Chief going to extreme lengths and laying waste to whomever is in his path to find his kidnapped daughter, while also conveying his hatred for the white man. Glass goes through the toughest trials of all in seeking his revenge. Fitzgerald is vengeful for losing his chance at making money and nearly being scalped in the past.

The peaceful scenes of nature that are seemingly unrelated to the characters’ activities are really there to show the difference between man and a higher power. The higher power (nature) does not bother with the pettiness of mankind, which now includes the Native Americans as they engage in the same activities as the white men.

Only during the final scene, following a brutal battle between protagonist and antagonist, does Glass realize the importance of the repeated and conflicting phrase, “Revenge is in the creator’s hands.” Only then is he redeemed from the folly of pursuing the immoral suicide mission that is revenge, and his life is spared.

— Philip Siddu, Blog Contributor

Phil Siddu
Phil Siddu

Phil Siddu is a senior at Lewis University working toward a degree in criminal/social justice and psychology. This is his first publication for Jet Fuel Review. When not studying or working, Phil enjoys drawing and spending time with his two sons.

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