“The Revenant” is newly available on Blu-ray and DVD. Note: This essay contains climactic spoilers.
“The Revenant” is ostensibly a horrifically violent, straight-up revenge story. The Bible famously condemns revenge: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 13:4, citing Deuteronomy 32:35). Yet “The Revenant” has been enthusiastically embraced by Christian cinephiles precisely for its spiritual themes.
This may seem paradoxical — but it’s not a fluke. “The Revenant” is very much the sort of film that those in Christian circles who look for spiritual meaning in the world of film find attractive.
Not long ago Alissa Wilkinson, critic at large for Christianity Today, tweeted a list of ten movies beloved by “Christians who want to talk about culture.” Her picks: “The Matrix”; “The Tree of Life”; “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”; “American Beauty”; “Fight Club”; “The Lord of the Rings”; “The Shawshank Redemption”; “Magnolia”; “Braveheart”; and “Saving Private Ryan.”
As anyone who has been part of film discussion among Christian enthusiasts over the last couple of decades can attest, this is a pretty representative list. Looking over the titles, a number of patterns stand out.
All ten films not only have male protagonists, but focus on or explore masculinity in one way or another. It may be that spiritually themed films with female protagonists, like “Babette’s Feast” and “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days,” are not quite as representative of the sort of film toward which such Christian cinephiles gravitate.
Partially this may reflect the broader Hollywood landscape, where male-centered films in general greatly outnumber female-centered ones. Notably, the ten films Wilkinson picked are all English-language films; the two female-led titles I mentioned are both foreign-language films.
It may also reflect the preponderance of male voices in Christian film discussion. Christian film critics, like film critics generally, are mostly white men, and the reasons for this are … well, beyond the scope of this article. The bottom line is that this is an issue both for film criticism generally, and for Christian film discussion in particular.
A second common thread is violence. The masculinity of the characters in many of these films is explored and defined through brutal violence — both inflicting it and also enduring it. Unlike other types of family-unfriendly content, such as sex and profanity, violence is sufficiently notable in enough of these films for its prominence to look like a feature, not a bug.
Finally, most of Wilkinson’s ten films connect more or less directly to Christian faith or spirituality. “The Tree of Life” and “The Lord of the Rings” are each in different ways works of Christian imagination, and “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix” have been endlessly discussed in terms of Christ figures. The Bible is quoted in “Saving Private Ryan,” evoked in “Magnolia,” and used as an important prop in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Notably, all three of these traits are present in spades in the one film that, more than any other, defines modern Christian engagement with film, “The Passion of the Christ.” Mel Gibson’s Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, suffers unimaginable punishment, but also shows that he can take it by rising to his feet after the first bout of scourging, prompting the incredulous Roman soldiers to beat him still more savagely.
All three traits are also present in “The Revenant,” directed by Alejandro Iñárritu and filmed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a regular partner of “The Tree of Life” director Terrence Malick, who imbues the film’s wild frontier landscape with the same luminous beauty he brought to Malick’s “The New World”).
Like Caviezel’s Christ, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Philip Glass — a 19th-century trapper and scout who is betrayed and left for dead by a treacherous companion (Tom Hardy) while guiding a crew of hunters and trappers through Indian territory — endures overwhelming physical punishment. First he is savagely mauled by a mother bear protecting her cubs; then human adversaries attempt to finish the job.
There is a burial-and-resurrection motif (more than one, in fact), and God-talk and religious imagery run through the film.
A scout and trapper who married a Pawnee woman and raised a half-Pawnee son, Glass’s power to endure seemingly endless punishment and keep going is rooted not so much in the drive to avenge the wrong done to himself as in his thirst for vengeance for the murder of his son.
Glass may or may not be a Christian hero, but his enemy, the odious John Fitzgerald (Hardy), certainly seems to be an irreligious monster. Early on, he tells an unsettling story about how his father “found God,” adding, “turns out, God, he’s a squirrel. A big ol’ meaty one…and while sitting there and basking in the glory and sublimity of mercy, [he] shot and ate that son of a bitch.”
Over the course of the film, white villains brutally rape and murder their way through Indian territory, exhibiting the sort of unmitigated odiousness required in movie villains whom the audience is meant to hate so that we will cheer their well-deserved deaths.
“The Revenant” does offer occasional moments of humanity and grace. One of the film’s Christian advocates, who calls the film’s revenge elements “a bit of a red herring,” calls out a delicate scene in which Glass and a young Pawnee named Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud) who aids him laughingly catch snowflakes on their tongues like children.
Shortly after this, Hikuc is murdered by white trappers. Which is the misdirection? Does the violence exist to allow the moments of grace to shine more brightly? Or do the moments of grace exist to make the violence as horrifying as possible?
Hikuc believed that vengeance should not have the last word.
“Revenge is in the Creator’s hands,” he tells Glass, ostensibly unknowingly echoing the Christian scriptures. Glass recalls these words at the denouement, having overcome Fitzgerald in a brutal hand-to-hand knife fight in the snow on the banks of an icy river.
What follows is, from a Christian perspective, a hollow parody of mercy or forbearance: Instead of killing Fitzgerald himself, Glass slips him into the river and allows him to float downstream where a band of Ree warriors wait to finish the job. It’s revenge by proxy, with the Ree as God’s instruments, allowing Glass to avenge his son and then presumably die and join his murdered wife and son in the afterlife, his hands technically unstained with his enemy’s life’s blood.
There are hints of transcendence: dreams or visions involving Glass’s murdered wife and son, one of which takes place in what appears to be a ruined Byzantine church covered with dazzling iconography (perhaps a hat tip to Andrei Tarkovsky’s iconography-haunted “Andrei Rublev”) and a rather out-of-place Renaissance-style crucifix.
But all of these seem to reinforce Glass’s status as a wronged man deprived of his loved ones. The film’s spirituality is that of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” in which a murdered family provides the justification for the hero’s violence and his reward in death.
I can understand why Christian film enthusiasts have gravitated to “The Revenant.” Certainly it resembles certain films with genuinely transcendent themes. But Jeffrey Overstreet offers what I find a compelling cross-examination:
What does this movie love? That is to say, where does it focus its energy? “The Revenant” always comes back to its central character’s physical fight with enemies and the elements. That is what it is most interested in. For all of its feints in the direction of conscience and spiritual inquiry, almost every sequence is primarily about staging visceral violence to the point that it becomes exhausting.
“What does this movie love?” is an important question for Christian cinephiles (or cinephiles of any stripe) to bear in mind. “What do the film’s fans love about it?” is another important question. On what does the Christian cachet of “The Revenant” and films like it depend?
Revenge stories assert a well-defined moral framework with clear-cut villains and heroes. In this genre, family ties and loyalty are supreme values; in attacking the hero’s family, the villain becomes the enemy of all that is sacred, thereby making the hero the defender of the true and the good.
None of this is necessarily bad in principle. In practice, though, it can lead to troubling patterns — for example, stories in which wives and children are reduced to victims simply to wound the hero, demonize the villain, and glorify the violence that follows.
Fortitude is a cardinal virtue, and physical fortitude is particularly associated with virility and male heroism — an attractive theme to Christian males. This is partly linked to the phenomenon of “muscular Christianity”; it can also reflect a conservative reaction to the ideals, and sometimes to the excesses, of feminism, pacifism, and nonviolence. (One Christian critic specifically cites “feminism and the rise of egalitarian culture” as the basis for the appeal of “reasserted masculinity” in films like “The Revenant.”)
Again, there’s nothing wrong with “reasserted masculinity.” But when violence becomes the defining medium for “reasserting” masculinity — and atrocities are put onscreen solely to motivate and justify violence — the result can be a kind of violence pornography.
Pornography falsely sexualizes real life by creating a distorted narrative world in which, as the novelist David Foster Wallace observed, sex is always only a heartbeat away. Violence porn similarly brutalizes real life by creating a distorted narrative world in which violence is always only a heartbeat away.
Pornography is sex as worldview; violence porn is violence as worldview.
For the record, I wouldn’t call “The Revenant” violence porn. (I would save that label for garbage like “The Expendables.”) But its appeal seems to me to tilt troublingly in that direction. Just as the pornification of human consciousness and culture extends far beyond the boundaries of actual pornography, troubling forms of media violence go beyond actual violence porn.
At the very least, whether one sees “The Revenant” as a spiritually rich, profound meditation on good and evil or an overwrought attempt to transmogrify atrocity into transcendence, Christians should recognize that when it comes to media depictions of violence, there are two potential dangers, not just one.
We can err in the direction of moralistically condemning all violence, but we can also err in the direction of naively embracing it for its perceived heroism or frankness. A fully Christian response to onscreen violence must be a critical one — and we must cross-examine not just our media, but also ourselves.
Steven Greydanus is a candidate for the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and holds degrees in both media arts and religious studies.