All Breaths are One: The Revenant Review17 February 2016
The wind, swelling and receding in the darkness, is the first sound of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. At first, its hollow murmur seems to have little significance. But as we travel through the fierce landscapes of 1820s Montana alongside fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), we realise that the wind is integral to one of the film’s central metaphors.
“The wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots. If you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you see its stability.”
This allegory, murmured in the Pawnee language by Glass’ dead wife (Grace Dove), haunts his dreams. Iñárritu visualises the metaphor with recurring low angle-shots of trees that shudder in the wind during moments of rising tension. Where the wind evokes adversity and the flailing branches represent suffering, the trunk embodies fortitude and the strong roots draw up determination to fight for survival.
The roots of Glass’ own being similarly draw strength from his relationship with Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his halfPawnee son whom he protects by any means. Solidarity is paramount in this dangerous land, where the pair’s ambiguous ethnic affiliations render them semioutcasts. After a confrontation with fellow trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Glass reminds a distressed Hawk, “You are my son.” A simple affirmation of kinship is the taciturn Glass’s way of expressing his deepest affection.
Indeed, the dialogue is as minimalist as the soundtrack, evoking the untamed landscape across which human societies are still scattered. Instead, breathing becomes both a communicative tool and a second survival motif that counterpoints the wind metaphor. Glass believes that, “as long as you grab a breath, you fight”, and he lives it too, weathering strangulation by an Arikara, a bear slashing his windpipe, Fitzgerald’s attempt to smother him and a journey down a succession of waterfalls.
The breathing motif is emphasised at the film’s most gutwrenching moment, when Fitzgerald knifes Hawk and flees with the ingenuous Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), leaving a crippled Glass halfburied. Wheezing, Glass claws out of his shallow grave in search of his son. Dragging himself laboriously across the snow, he notices a spot of red and his breath catches. He follows the trail of blood, crawling towards Hawk’s rigid body. He lays his head on his son’s still chest, and all is silent but for Glass’ griefstricken, faltering breaths. The camera intrudes so deeply into this moment that Glass’ exhale mists the lens.
With the slow rhythm of Glass’ lonely breaths in the background, the camera pans up and around; the scene changes before we realise, in the characteristic style of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Glass’ breaths are seamlessly joined into those of Fitzgerald, who is smoking a pipe on a rise, his breath tainted by his reprehensible actions.
“That boy was all I had,” Glass says, “and he took him from me.” The blow is as powerful as a raging blizzard, but Glass’ roots are so strong that they continue to clutch where there is only a memory. His love for Hawk is intensified by his hatred for Fitzgerald. These powerful emotions raise him from his grave in a manner booming with Christian symbolism, which certainly cannot go undetected after Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) exclaims, “Jesus Christ!” upon his discovery.
But this revenant returns with destruction in mind, not forgiveness. Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud), the lone Pawnee who renounces retribution against his persecutors, examines Glass’ wounds and concludes, “Your body is rotten.” Likewise, Glass’ spirit festers with a desire for vengeance. Though Glass’ narrative reflects the archetypal Christian story of resurrection, Iñárritu displays it in a warped mirror. The audience must look elsewhere for true renewal.
Signs of transferred life pervade the film, from the moss that Glass places in his dead son’s mouth to the sparrow that escapes his wife’s bullet wound. Foremost among these are the bison that are so culturally important to the Plains Indians. The mounds of bison skulls that punctuate Glass’ dream sequences recall the government’s drive to repress the Native Americans by destroying their livelihoods. But through Glass’ perspective, we are shown symbolic proof of revivification.
He scales a river bank to a crescendo of drumming hooves and, at the sight of an immense herd of bison, falls to his knees. On a cosmic scale, survival can be deferred. But on a human scale it cannot. This fact makes Fitzgerald’s final stab cut all the more deeply: “You came all this way for your revenge, Glass… but ain’t nothing gonna bring your boy back.”
Despite his rage, Glass restrains himself from delivering the fatal blow. Hikuc’s faith has sparked in him a halfformed memory of an abandoned Creator, whose churches crumble in his dreams. But as the truth of Fitzgerald’s words sink in, Glass appears truly cold for the first time in the film. The grief of losing his wife and son to senseless violence engulfs the glimmer of faith.
The apparition of Glass’ wife gazes at him tenderly before turning away, and he shivers with the finality of the separation from his kin. Yet his breaths continue into the credits, suggesting that he will cling to life enough to grow new roots.
By bookending the film with wind and breath in darkness, Iñárritu draws parallels between the two. He does not resolve the tension between these symbols of destruction and life; the two are caught up in each other as part of natural cycles of renewal.
Despite its intense human tragedy, in the world of The Revenant, life is transposed. The bison downed by a pack of wolves lives in those that escape. The flaming tree that falls lives in the forest that stands.