The Revenant finds its centre in struggle—and DiCaprio

Culture Film
Illustration by Jane Qi
Illustration by Jane Qi

The internet is rife with jokes about Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar impotence. But through his recent alliance with director Alejandro González Iñárritu (director of Birdman and Babel), The Revenant star DiCaprio stands to win this season, and for good reason: his portrayal of survival is so vivid, you will shiver along with him.

The story is based on the legendary tale of Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman who survived a bear mauling but was left for dead by his hunting party. Glass spent weeks crawling downriver, allowing maggots to eat his gangrene-infected body, then eating the maggots, all in order to return to civilization.

Departing from the legend, in Iñárritu’s film, Glass is also hounded by a tribe of angry Arikara, led by Elk Dog (Vancouver Island’s own Duane Howard), as they hunt for the kidnappers of Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), a Pawnee princess. Another departure is that Glass, giving namesake to the title word “Revenant,” rises from the grave, so to speak, to hunt down the fur-crazy John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, and exact revenge for the death of his son.

The Revenant offers a more realistic vision of “Cowboys and Indians” than Hollywood has traditionally offered. The film demonstrates the dynamic, shifting terrain of frontier life as America is colonized during the fur trade of the 1800s. On the one hand is the ideology of  manifest destiny and the settlers who were adapting the New World to it; on the other are the indigenous peoples of America representing the will to defend a way of life that has existed since time immemorial. DiCaprio’s Glass bridges that gap between cultures, much as he bridges the gaps between life and death, revenge and forgiveness. Through him, the audience sees two sides: the Arikara see the voyagers as kidnapping, pilfering, raping savages, while the voyagers see the Arikara as a lesser breed of human, void of rights.

At its most essential, the film captures the epitome of struggle. We join Glass as he crawls painfully out of his half-filled-in grave and through the snow to paw at the few drops of blood left behind by his son. With every inch of ground he gains, we crawl along with him; every time he stumbles, we feel his defeat and renewed determination to survive. Even though the film’s multitude of other characters contribute to the motley blend of people on the American frontier, this is undeniably DiCaprio’s film.