by Alvin G. Burstein
To say that this film is gripping is an understatement. It confronts us with realities that cry for denial. To what Freud called “the crushingly superior force of nature” the movie adds the human capacity for brutish betrayal and exploitation. And the story unfolds against a backdrop of classic beauty that highlights the gouts of blood and pain it frames.
In a biopic, The Revenant takes us back to the antebellum period, but rather than the plantations of the southeast, we follow a hunting party in the northwest. The protagonist, Hugh Glass, is one of the hunters collecting valuable animal pelts while trying to avoid the danger of engagement with sometimes hostile Indians. Glass, having survived injury in a raid by Indians, is horribly mauled by a grizzly bear. Broken and bleeding, unable to speak, barely breathing, his remains are dragged by his colleagues toward their base. Weather, unforgiving terrain and the dangers of more attacks drive them to abandon his crude litter. To assuage their guilt at abandoning a dying comrade, the group agrees to an eventual supplemental financial reward to a pair who are to stay behind with Glass, at least until his death. The group leaves, but all too soon his guardians follow suit, leaving Glass, still clinging to life in a shallow grave, but bereft of the means of survival.
Abandoned, Glass manages to pull himself out of his grave—a revenant—and maimed and crippled, manages to claw his way back to what might be called civilization. The film describes that harrowing trek, often a crawl, of over a hundred miles through an unforgiving wilderness. Few of the details are left to the imagination.
The psychological question posed is that of the motivation fueling Glass’s incredible achievement. Accounts that precede this biopic, and the film itself, suggest that Glass’s burning rage and thirst for revenge on his betrayers powered him. The film elaborates on that speculation by adding two elements to what is, in fact, known about Glass.
First, the film adds a half-Indian son—one Hugh is not known to have had—to the hunting party. The ignominy of Glass’s betrayers is magnified by their killing of the boy as a prelude to their flight. The elaboration may simply reflect a directorial effort to heighten the potential for rage.
But there is more. The film is studded with hallucinated flash backs to Hugh’s married life to a Pawnee woman, the mother of their slain child, though there are no contemporary accounts of such a marriage. One of the flash backs shows her being killed in a military raid on her village, and Glass, to comfort their son, reassuring him that he will never leave him. When Glass crawls out of his grave and discovers his clearly murdered son, this should serve to bring his thirst for revenge to white heat.
However, marring the narrative thrust of the film, in the biopic as in fact, after the gut-wrenching effort to track down his betrayers, Glass fails to revenge himself. He forgives one of the pair that abandoned him and leaves revenge on the second “to God.”
Perhaps to provide adequate closure, the film ends with another revenant, a hallucinated ghost of Glass’s wife beckons him to follow her.
I think the hokeyness of this ending reflects the movie maker’s feeling troubled by questions about Glass’s motivation.
In reflecting on just those questions, I was reminded of Primo Levi’s, Survival In Auschwitz. In concentration camps, too, survivors were faced with “crushingly superior” forces that only very few were able to survive. Levi described the musselmann, who slumped into helplessly apathetic surrender, and survivors, who held on to agency, who managed to invoke control over some corner of their otherwise hopeless situation. A minor callisthenic, a mental ritual, anything to demonstrate their will, their control of self, their human selfhood, potentiated survival against overwhelming odds.
Psychoanalysis has paid scant attention to this aspect of what might be called positive psychology. Maybe modern amenities cushion us sufficiently to predispose us to that omission. Maybe Hugh Glass reminds us of agency’s importance.