The Revenant is a thrilling, immersive survival film. Like other survival films, the movie centers around the conflict between humans and the environment they are in (with some righteous Native Americans and a stirring revenge plot thrown in for good measure). But The Revenant also works as a quasi-Native American myth as well, utilizing metaphorical symbols to convey further meaning to viewers.
Listed below is a list of some (but definitely not all) of the symbols in The Revenant (and caution, SPOILERS!!!!!!):
Man Is The Wildest Animal Of All
Okay, seriously, SPOILERS AHEAD.
A common thread among films in which the protagonist battles animals in a fight for survival is that man is the wildest of animals. Emblematic of this is just how hard the characters, especially Glass and Fitzgerald, struggle to live – and kill. The most savage moment of the film is the end, when Glass and Fitzgerald finally square off. In true animal fashion, they abandon their guns and go at it tooth-and-claw, or rather, axe-and-knife. Fitzgerald literally devours a piece of Glass in the fight and when Glass is ready to kill his enemy, he sets out to do it with his own hands (before relenting).
Throughout the movie, the idea that man is an animal is underscored repeatedly by the fact that Glass becomes various animals himself. Check this out:
Glass Is A Bear
It was shown partially in the trailer and if you haven’t seen the film, then you’ve probably heard about it. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Glass, gets into with a bear. Not just any bear, but a mean mama bear protecting her cubs. (I don’t blame her. I get this way when people try to eat my Chipotle. E coli be damned.) While his ass is beat pretty bad, all that hurt put on him must’ve helped, because he uses the strength of that bear to recover from his injuries and start his epic quest for revenge.
Sure, Glass doesn’t physically become a bear. But wearing its claws around his neck and its fur on his body, he sets out to avenge his slain son, making every mama bear proud. He even catches a fish barehanded (bear-handed?) and eats it raw.
Glass As A Wolf In Man’s Clothing
The bear thing doesn’t last too long, because soon enough, Glass is starving and needing to eat again. He comes across some buffalo (bison?) and witnesses a wolf pack taking down one of the huge beasts. Unable to get any of the meat himself, he dozes off. When he awakes, the wolves have been sent packing and a Pawnee man is cutting into and eating the remains of the slain buffalo.
On all fours – like a wolf – Glass crawls to the man and begs for food. The Pawnee tosses a bunch of meat on the ground and Glass eats the wolf-kill hungrily and raw, again, like an animal. Moreover, this moment of the film represents when Glass no longer has to go it alone and joins up with the Pawnee. Although a small one, Glass has his very own wolfpack.
Glass Reborn As A Horse
When Glass joins up with the Pawnee wanderer, his life substantially improves. Perhaps the best thing of all is that he gets to ride the Pawnee’s horse, allowing him to rest and likely helping to save his life. The horse serves as a symbol of escape from danger. After the Pawnee gets unfortunately caught and killed by those French bastards, Glass frees the Pawnee’s horse and even takes off on its back amongst a pack of the freed creatures.
Sadly, his new horse ally doesn’t last long, as a group of avenging Ree find him and the horse. Glass survives but the horse is killed when the two tumble off a cliff. (Side note: that was a cool scene I wish the trailer hadn’t ruined.) The important part of this scene is when Glass cuts open the horse and crawls into its dead carcass to survive a cold night. When he emerges, Glass is figuratively being reborn as a horse himself. Again, the horse is a symbol of safety and escape and it is no mere coincidence that shortly after Glass is metaphorically turned into a horse, he is rescued.
Glass the … Fish?
Okay, this one’s a stretch, but at one point in the film, Glass rides down a river bobbing up and down on it to make his escape. I’m tempted to say he is metaphorically a fish here. I don’t have much evidence of this, other than that, in the final battle with Fitzgerald, Glass is “fish-hooked” in the mouth by Fitzgerald which looked to me like a winking nod at Glass maybe having “turned into” a fish too. Meh, take it or leave it, but it was an interesting combat move to throw into a film where the main character becomes a lot of other animals as well.
Besides Glass as these animals, we get a lot of other references to people being animals as well. Glass himself says that Fitzgerald is “an elk” on the run. And of course, “God is a squirrel” and man, being in God’s image according to Judeo-Christianity, makes us squirrels as well.
God’s Not A Squirrel, But If He Is, Don’t Eat Him
This one’s a bit obvious, but still worth pointing out. Throughout the film, several characters reference God. Importantly, three characters’ encounters with their understanding of God stick out: Glass, Fitzgerald, and the Pawnee man that Glass meets.
Revenge is in God’s Hand
In the easiest bit of symbolism in the film, the Pawnee loner who gives Glass food tells Glass that vengeance is in the hand of God. Glass is at first taken aback by this, but at the end of the film, when he has Fitzgerald right where he wants him, Glass relents and releases Fitzgerald into the rushing river. No sooner does he do this than the Ree, who had just arrived, pluck Fitzgerald from the river and slash his throat. The metaphor is clear and evident; the Ree serve as God’s vengeance throughout the film, enacting death on Fitzgerald, the fur traders and the French who kidnapped the girl, Powaqa.
But moreso, it is the Ree, acting as God’s divine will, who set the film into motion. Without the loss of Powaqa, the tribe would likely never have attacked Glass and Fitzgerald’s operation in the first place. In this view, it is God who ignites the plot’s events, using the tribe to divinely execute the French and Fitzgerald. Glass is merely an actor in God’s plans.
So … God’s a Squirrel?
Fitzgerald’s actions are wrong, but come off as somewhat understandable given his fear of the Ree and death. He becomes even a little more sympathetic when we learn that Fitzgerald’s father seemed a little off his rocker as well. In a memorable scene, Fitzgerald recounts that his father “found God” and that God was a squirrel. His father, of course, killed and ate the squirrel.
This viewpoint – that man is superior to God and can even devour God – informs Fitzgerald’s character on his own importance and ability to craft his own destiny. This is why he is so emphatic in his nature. This is why he continually goes on and on with his own self-righteousness, from the start of the film to the very end. But given that God is a character in this film, the genesis of the plot, Fitzgerald is ultimately set against God’s purposes and, for that, he dies.
It is tempting to view God in The Revenant through one’s own experience, and that means a Judeo-Christian viewpoint for many of us. But the film doesn’t suggest that God is specifically the Judeo-Christian version. After all, the Pawnee’s words about God come true by the end of the film, suggesting that God fits the Pawnee’s definition at the very least. Given that Native Americans hold a variety of religious beliefs, differing from tribe to tribe. It would be difficult to pin down exactly which Native American idea of God the film is promoting. The film instead seems to work as a collage of beliefs, taking a little from many to make the story.
A part of this is the idea of the Native American vision, or spirit, quest. A popular part of the traditional image of indigenous Americans, the vision quest takes different forms in different cultures. Glass goes on his own vision quest in this film. Common among the ideas of vision quests are ideas about a man fasting (Glass starves), finding animal guides (Glass follows after many animals, as noted above), seeing spirits (his dead wife and child), and one finding his purpose within his community (as Glass perhaps does by the end of the film; he at least finds his place in God’s plans). Glass’s vision quest is a reference to Native American culture that many probably missed in the film.
Resurrection and Baptism
Given the patchwork of spiritual ideas in the film, Judeo-Christianity does make a rather forceful appearance in the ideas of resurrection and baptism, used repeatedly during The Revenant‘s two-and-a-half hour runtime. For those with a Christian background, they’ll know that the Christian idea of baptism is a symbol itself for death and resurrection. Christians go down into the water to be buried and raise up out of it, restored to new life and resurrected.
Glass is literally buried and rises from the grave. That symbol alone is powerful, but when it is repeated over and over, you get the idea that Iñárritu wants you to pay attention to it. Glass is baptized in the film when he escapes from the Ree across the river, becoming completely immersed and then rising out of it to begin the next leg of his journey. Only moments later, Glass is again buried by the Pawnee who takes Glass’s disease-ridden body, builds a tomb for him, and helps Glass rise again as a renewed, healed man, another clear example of resurrection. Even later, Glass again “dies” and is buried inside his horse’s corpse, only to again rise anew from his grave the next day. The number of burials and resurrections in the film may seem over the top, but again, it seems to be something Iñárritu is invested in.
The most visually-apparent symbol in the film is the spiral, etched by Bridger on his canteen and which serves as an important plot device later in the film. The meaning of the spiral is one of the more interesting parts of the story.
First, it should be noted that the spiral is the official symbol of the World Pantheist Movement, an organization which promotes pantheism, the idea that spirituality should be centered on nature. Additionally, the spiral has been used to represent a variety of other ideas. One is the concept of evolution and growth, something that Glass achieves by the end of their film. Another idea is that of surrender and release which, again, Glass is able to do by the end of the film, accepting his place in God’s larger plan, a reference to another meaning: “awareness of the one within the context of the whole.”
The spiral’s place in the film is paramount and most easily conveys The Revenant‘s themes of communion with God and nature. With it and all of the other symbols in the film, the movie is really an incredibly rich story. The Revenant can be watched and re-watched over and over again to see all of the creative ways these symbols are intertwined with this tale of revenge.
Our Score: A-
Rotten Tomatoes: 81% | IMDB: 8.3 | Metacritic: 77