Due to a linear plot and lack of dialogue, The Revenant can feel deceptively simple. According to director Alejandro González Iñárritu, “It’s kind of rescuing what cinema is about: show and don’t tell” (Ross). There’s a wealth of key information that the script refuses to explain. Iñárritu describes the film’s production as “an exercise in molecular storytelling” (Woodward), and after watching the film several times, I’m quite certain that few blockbusters rival this film’s complexity. Below, I’ve compiled a list of important details I missed the first time through.
(1) Glass is saved by the river
In his book The Revenant: a Novel of Revenge (which the film is loosely based on), Michael Punke explains that frontiersmen relied on rivers for navigation. “The river was the sole marker across unknown terrain,” he writes (Chapter 3). Plus, Glass relies on the river for food, as he’s unable to catch anything other than fish in his crippled state. The trapper knows that any river he encounters is either the Grand or the Missouri, or a tributary that will lead him to one of these two major rivers, which will lead him to a fur-trading outpost. So when he discovers the river after his bear attack (figure 1.0), it’s the first time in the film that the tone is triumphant. After crawling for miles across unmapped terrain, Glass has found a way back to civilization.
(2) The film starts and ends with a flood
In the film’s title shot (figure 1.1), a tracking shot carries us over a flash flood rushing across a forest floor (while Glass, Hawk, and Bridger are hunting the elk)—an image demonstrating the instability of the region’s climate. In this otherworldly landscape, the river has no boundary.
During the final fight, the river is rising rapidly. When Fitzgerald and Glass arrive at the bank (figure 1.2), the water is calm, and much of the stream is frozen over. By the end of their battle (1.3), the water has spread across the shore, and its current has sped up. The scene takes place at sunrise, during the brief period where snow from the night before melts and flows down the mountain. When filming the scene, the team was only able to shoot one take of the fight (which was thoroughly rehearsed). After the first take, the current had grown so hazardous that it was almost impossible for the horses to cross (which occurs after the fight).
(3) Fitzgerald was right
The Revenant has no lead villain. Fitzgerald does what we’d expect any animal to do when it’s backed into a corner: he kills to survive. Before he attempts to kill Glass, Fitzgerald begs for his permission. “Them Ree– they’re so close now I can smell ’em. Now I know you can smell ’em too.” A later scene proves that his prediction was accurate. Shortly after Glass crawls away from the camp, the Arikara (or “Ree”) hunters discover Hawk’s body. So if Fitzgerald hadn’t tried to kill Glass, the four trappers would never have left the camp and would have been slaughtered by the hunting party who had picked up their trail.
Sure, Fitzgerald is a bigot, but none of his violent actions are fueled by prejudice. If Hawk had been white, he still would’ve gotten knifed. In the finale, Fitzgerald tells Glass that he didn’t want to kill his son: “I tried to tell him what was happenin’, but he wouldn’t listen, and he kept on screaming, and he was gonna get everybody killed.” This isn’t a lie. After Hawk strikes his father’s attacker with the butt of his rifle, he starts calling for his friend Bridger at the top of his lungs. Fitzgerald quickly disarms the boy then repeatedly begs him to “calm down.” But Hawk has lost has senses. “They will hang you! They will hang you!” he screams. So Fitzgerald is really left with only one option that won’t result in his death. It’s easy to hate him, but the film doesn’t condemn Fitzgerald for killing Hawk any more than it condemns Glass for killing the grizzly (which also destroys a family, leaving the cubs motherless).
(4) Elk Dog is an intrepid warrior
Before Elk Dog (the Pawnee traveler who accompanies Glass until he is killed by the French trappers) feasts on the innards of a buffalo, he fights off the pack of wolves that had brought the buffalo down (in the prior scene). We don’t see the fight, as the camera keeps us next to Glass (who is lying next to the river). We only hear a man yelling and wolves yelping, and we briefly see a wolf limp past Glass with its fur on fire.
Elk Dog’s prowess is more significant when considering a later scene. When the French trapper shows up at the Rocky Mountain Fur Company stockade, he tells the Americans that his friends had been killed by wolves (probably because they weren’t smart enough to use fire). Yet one Pawnee warrior was able to single-handedly defeat a pack of wolves without a gun. The frontier is not a land for civilized men.
(5) Glass goes on a vision quest
During his dream of the ruined church (see figure 1.5), Glass isn’t sleeping; he’s hallucinating. After Elk Dog dresses his infected wounds and builds a tepee around him, the Pawnee healer starts burning a dark fungus near his face (1.6). The smoke seeps into his nostrils, and as the shot fades to black (initiating the dream), Glass’s eyes remain open. I’m not sure what this substance is (peyote?), but it’s clearly some potent stuff, because according to the director, it doesn’t just make him see things: “In this space of spirituality, he has an encounter with another world” (Suen). Inside the church, Glass finds his departed son waiting for him, and for the first time in the film, Hawk embraces his father. While the poultice is healing his physical wounds, the hallucinogen provides spiritual healing.
(6) This is not a godless world
Nothing in this story is supernatural. However, the film does explore different types of religious thought. A large portion of the dialogue involves praying and religious discussion. In Fitzgerald’s campfire story, he talks about how his father found God in a squirrel that crawled up to him and saved him from starvation. “And in turns out, God—he’s a squirrel!” he tells Bridger. Glass’s god, it seems, resides in the river. Moments before Fitzgerald’s death, Glass tells him, “Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine.” Then he pushes his enemy into the freezing water. When asked about God’s presence in the film, Iñárritu replied, “I think that honestly God is around every moment, in nature and in those beautiful landscapes.” The Revenant explores the ways men can feel a spiritual presence throughout nature, especially when surrounded by wilderness.
The idea that God or spirits live within nature is illustrated during Glass’s dream of the ruined church. Inside the deteriorating edifice, Mother Nature has taken over. A stream runs down the center aisle, and the pews have been restored to trees. At the end of the dream, Hawk is transformed into a tree, conveying the Pawnee belief that departed spirits exist within the forest.
(7) Glass is saved by a tree
At times, Glass’s survival feels miraculous, as when he careens his horse off a cliff (to escape the pursuing Ree), crashes into a tree, falls several dozen feet onto the rocks below, and somehow survives without suffering any major injuries (while his horse is instantly killed). How does he get so lucky? Because the pine tree catches him and cradles him in its branches, gently lowering him to the ground.
After Glass and his horse fly from the cliff, the camera lingers back and hovers over the pine (figure 1.6) for an unusually long duration (30 seconds). If you watch closely, you can see individual boughs shaking (and hear branches cracking) as his body slides over them, spiraling down the trunk. At the end of the ruined church dream, Glass finds himself embracing a tree (which, moments earlier, had been his son). Here, the tree embraces him.
(8) Glass gives Fitzgerald a Pawnee funeral
Fitzgerald recites a sacrament when attempting to muzzle Glass. Similarly, Glass ends Fitzgerald’s life with a reference to God (“Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine”) and a sort of baptism. Pushing the mortally wounded man into the freezing cold water isn’t an act of cruelty; it appears to be a form of sacrifice (relinquishing his desire to kill his son’s killer). During a flashback, we see the body of Glass’s wife underwater (figure 1.7), her blood flowing with the swift current. After his throat is cut by the Arikara chief, we get a similar close-up of Fitzgerald’s underwater, lifeless body (1.8). Evidently, this is a Pawnee internment ritual—a means of returning the spirit to the earth.
(9) The meteorite is an omen
Glass’s vision of a meteorite foreshadows the end of Fitzgerald’s life. The dream starts with a shot of Glass walking along the river bank (figure 1.9). On the water’s surface (barely visible at the bottom of the frame), we can see a reflection of the meteorite’s fiery tail. Then we cut to a shot of the meteorite streaking across the sky. As the camera tilts down, we see Fitzgerald walking toward a river (figure 2.0). He stops when he reaches the water’s edge, then turns to face the camera. It’s as if the meteorite has led Glass to his destination.
The vision foreshadows the final confrontation, where Fitzgerald flees from his enemy until he runs into a stream flanked by a hill and a ridge (2.1). “I’ve got him trapped, he just doesn’t know it yet,” Glass tells Captain Henry. The dream conveys this scenario: Fitzgerald finds himself trapped against a river with a rock wall on the other side. The settings are different—still, the remarkable similarities between the vision and the actual event contribute to the film’s mystical sensibility.
(10) Glass does not die in the end
At the end of the film, Glass sees his wife standing before him (figure 2.2). The trapper looks relieved, but when the spirit walks away from him and disappears, his face is filled with despair (2.3).
The traditional interpretation is that Glass is at death’s door, and he’s experiencing an hallucination where his wife beckons him into the afterlife a la the end of Braveheart, where William Wallace sees his wife during his execution. However, David Crow (in his article “The Real History of The Revenant and Explaining the Ending”) argues, “I do not think Iñárritu is going for something nearly as reassuring or appeasing as that sort of bittersweet closer.” Obviously, the end of The Revenant is open to interpretation. Nonetheless, the film’s metaphysical subtext strongly suggests that Glass lives on.
When the final shot fades to black, we still hear his breathing, which continues for several seconds during the credits. “That is because he does not die,” argues Crow. “He is a survivalist at heart, and he did not survive grizzly bears, frozen river rapids, French gunfire, and an odyssey of snow only to give up because his revenge is quenched. Rather, Glass will keep breathing even after the credits end, even if it means he is utterly alone.” Keep in mind, Glass is not mortally wounded. During his fight with Fitzgerald, his enemy slashes his cheek, bites off part of his ear, stabs him in the thigh, then stabs his hand—injuries that would cripple an ordinary man. But Glass is anything but ordinary. A “revenant” is someone who returns from the dead. In Iñárritu’s film, Hugh Glass is a legend who continuously cheats death, so there’s no reason to believe that he could be stopped by a single man.