Pushed To The Edge By Loss: On The Revenant's Radical Grief


I watched The Revenant in a movie theater on a cold day in January. The theater was chilly, a failure on the part of the staff to fix the heater, I'm sure, but it seemed an inspired accident, a way to immerse the audience in the gelid, snowy landscape of the film. I went to see the film a bit reluctantly.  A story about a man who gets attacked by a bear didn't interest me all that much, but I found a deeper message in the movie, one that I did not expect. At its core, the film is about a father mourning his son.

The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a hunter who was mauled by a bear in the Rocky Mountains in the 1820s. Left for dead by his men, he survived the attack and sought revenge against those who abandoned him. The Revenant takes many liberties with Glass's story. The truth is, we simply do not know much about Glass. The film's director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, gives Glass a native american son who accompanies him on his expeditions. The son's name is Hawk. The film does a strong job of establishing the bond between father and son. We see Glass laying with Hawk and holding him in his arms. We see how Hawk is loyal to his father. When Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is attacked by the bear, his team of men carry him as far as they can in the wilderness until they come upon a mountain and decide that they cannot carry him any farther. It's decided that a few men will stay with Glass until he dies and then give him a proper burial. Hawk immediately voices his resistance to this idea, not wanting his father to be left for dead. He stays with Glass, along with two other men, John Fitzgerald and a young man named Bridger.

Fitzgerald, played by an almost unrecognizable Tom Hardy, is an untrustworthy character who has clashed with Glass in the past and now sees the wounded man as dead weight that needs to be discarded, not to mention he will receive a cash reward for making sure Glass gets a proper burial. Fitzgerald knows that as long as Hawk is around, Glass will be protected. In a moment of terrible violence, Fitzgerald murders Hawk in front of Glass, who is powerless to stop the attack. What greater horror can there be than to watch your child be murdered? Glass can only moan and widen his eyes, his body completely debilitated and rotting due to the bear attack. The death of Hawk is the defining event of the film. Witnessing the death of his son traumatizes Glass, but also propels him back to life.

After killing Hawk, Fitzgerald tricks Bridger into thinking a group of native americans are about to attack and they need to leave Glass behind. The men put him in a grave, but Glass crawls out of it and makes his way over to his son's dead body and lays his head on Hawk's chest. It's a heart-wrenching scene. From that moment on, Glass is a grieving father who will obtain justice for his son. He traverses the wilderness, relentlessly pursuing his goal of revenge until he finds Fitzgerald and kills him, but Fitzgerald says something very important before dying. He says that his own death will not bring back Hawk, and it's true. Fitzgerald's lifeless, bloody body floats down a river and the look on Glass's face is not one of triumph or glee, it's one of profound, unutterable loss. His desire for revenge is what kept him alive through the miles and miles of vast wilderness, through the pain of rotting flesh and oozing wounds and now not only is his son still dead but he's fulfilled his need for revenge, the one thing that gave him purpose and allowed him to survive. What will he do now? What does anyone do after such a traumatic loss? The film provides no answer because there is no answer.

This subject of grief transcends the confines of the film. Hawk was Pawnee. Hawk was an other, a member of a group that American history obliterated. We do not speak about the genocide of native americans in this country. We turn away, we hold fast to comforting mythologies about indigenous people being "savage" and "barbaric." Iñárritu is from Mexico, and perhaps this gave him a clearer vision of American history. He was culturally sensitive, including native americans in the making of the film and heavily featuring the Arikara language. Many indigenous actors have spoken positively of the experience of being on set. It's important to consider the larger implications of a film that asks its audiences to grieve the death of an indigenous person. This film will not let us turn away from a white man's murder of a person of color and it seems very radical to make us grieve the death of someone traditionally considered, to use Judith Butler's terminology, "ungrievable."

So I went to this film not expecting to connect with it or find much meaning in it, but the opposite happened. I found a deeper meaning in the quiet moments, in the way Glass holds Hawk, the way Hawk stands by his father, the way a father grieves for his son. His grief may be violent and difficult to watch, it may be messy and disturbing and uncomfortable to accept, but it's still grief and all of us, at some point, can be pushed over the edge by loss.