There have been so many movies, especially since the 1990s, where violence seems to be its own raison d'être. Chopped fingers, severed limbs and buckets of blood are meant to shock, disturb and move the audience. In The Revenant, however, violence and blood is inevitable. It is the natural outcome of the film's setting: the Wild West in its most authentic form.
The Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu is not a mere master of directing. His shots are almost never static. The trick is not in the close-ups or the angles. The camera seems to be the eyes of a short observer. (Justifiably) belligerent Native Americans, wild animals, elemental forces -- the viewer is simply overwhelmed by the perils of untouched nature.
Hugh Glass, the main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a rugged individualist in the direct sense of the word, a Daniel Boone type who, thanks to his resilience, courage and self-reliance, battles all the challenges of wilderness, "the savages" and other greedy hunters. He is somewhat different, nevertheless, because he has a son, a native half-breed at that, which makes him more vulnerable, more exposed to being hurt both physically or emotionally. Film critic Wai Chee Dimock argues that the film re-interprets the concept of this racial mix from a derogatory idea promoted by Fennimore Cooper -- one of the most prominent creators of the stereotype of American Indians as "savages" -- to an aesthetic way in which to see the world. She compared Glass and Bumppo, Cooper's main protagonist from the Leathestocking Tales, as literary foils, with Glass living an inversion of the latter's biography and perspective. So, in a sense, Glass is a post-modern rugged individualist created with neo-colonial awareness. But the story does not seem politically tendentious in any way; although carefully planned and detail-oriented, it appears and sounds raw.
The Revenant is a revenge story. Since it also explores spiritual themes, and most religions would agree on the futility of any revenge, Iñárritu mitigates Glass's demonic yet understandable drive to avenge the murder of his young son in the final scene. Instead of finishing off the hated villain, Glass sends him down the river to the equally retaliation-seeking Native Americans. Thus the viewer's ultimate desire to see the retribution is skillfully taken away from the vengeful father.
All in all, the film cannot leave even the most hardened viewer indifferent. Both plot and the cinematography represents a celebration of nature, Earth, diversity, love and the drive for survival. Despite its brutality, the film makes one almost desirous of becoming part of the ruthless and remorseless drive to the Pacific.