This article contains The Revenant spoilers.
In the last two years, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has delivered a pair of visionary films that've made a grizzly bear-sized impact on the cinematic conversation. 2014’s Birdman was an ode to pretension, ambition, and all those other wonderful virtues that drive artists mad. Nimble and talky with its theatrical levity, Birdman is quite clearly the inverse of The Revenant, a stoic and often wordless musing on man’s primal urges—including revenge—when cast against a primordial and uncaring world. Ostensibly an intimate story of suffering, The Revenant takes on a biblical scope when Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy are doing battle in the backdrop of a budding avalanche.
However, there is more in common with these two movies than merely their ability to play as awards voter catnip (Birdman nearly swept the Oscars and if the Golden Globes of 2016 are any indication, The Revenant might repeat the trend). In fact, one of the most striking similarities is their preference for ambiguity and open-ended finality.
After seeing The Revenant twice now in the last two months—and with two different sets of people—I can confirm that there have been wildly different interpretations about the closing scene and just what Hugh Glass’ final audible breaths mean for both the character and his place in history.
But I suspect the whole meaning of the nigh three-hour film’s conclusion is explained right at the start of the picture.
The very first lines of dialogue in The Revenant are spoken by Leonardo DiCaprio with a Pawnee affection, yet their meaning remains crystal clear. “It’s okay son, I know you want this to be over. I’m right here. I will be right here. But you don’t give up. You hear me? As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.”
These early words spoken by Hugh Glass to Hawk, his half-Pawnee son, are crucial to understanding the movie. In the immediacy, it introduces the theme of the story, as well as Glass’ love for a son whose mother was taken away by other white men. But it, more than any desire for revenge, is the true driving force for Glass’ stunning survival instinct.
And it comes just as much into play at the end of the film after Hugh Glass has hunted down John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and cornered him by a slushy creek. The most iconic scene in The Revenant, which is destined to become a classic moment of big screen brutality, is of course when the grizzly bear mauls Hugh Glass half to death in an agonizing steadicam shot that goes on for several minutes (plus an eternity). Yet, the final knockdown, drag out brawl between Glass and Fitzgerald is just as merciless.
Bones are smashed, fingers cut off, and hands impaled. By all accounts, both men appear mortally wounded, albeit Fitzgerald more so. Hence why he can barely protest when Glass sends his broken body down river like it’s a raft borne of flesh and leaking blood. Glass does this because he seems to have taken to heart the advice of his Pawnee savior from the midway point of the film. He is on course to suffer the fate of all tragic revengers if he personally takes Fitzgerald’s life.
… Plus it’s kind of a vicious boon that Fitzgerald despises Native Americans more than anything else. While Fitzgerald could keep a brave face and proudly mock Glass to his dying breath, the idea of the “savages” that took his scalp would now finish the job is akin to feeding an arachnophobe to a den of black widows.
Yet, it’s after this moment that the ambiguity settles in. Just as Fitzgerald said before he died, “Well you enjoy it Glass, because there ain’t anything that’ll bring your boy back.” And indeed, with his revenge complete, Glass appears frightfully wounded and far from the safety of a fort. Thus there appears nothing left to him when the ghostly visage of his dead wife appears, apparently beckoning him toward the eternal.
The closing images of the film are of Hugh Glass watching in utter despair as she turns away from his snow-encrusted beard and walks into the distance while he keeps breathing. He keeps breathing even after the credits have begun.
Admittedly, one interpretation of this ending, which is entirely valid, is that Glass follows his long lost love to find peace with her and their murdered son, Hawk. The idea of an avenger finding peace in death after his revenge is complete remains a familiar and comforting ending every bit as satisfying as the often grimmer alternative of self- annihilation. Maximus was relieved to find his wife and son waiting for him on the fields of Elysium, and Mel Gibson’s version of William Wallace greeted Catherine McCormack’s Murron almost as readily as Gibson jumps at scenes of glorified torture.
However, I do not think Iñárritu is going for something nearly as reassuring or appeasing as that sort of bittersweet closer. There is no uplift for Hugh Glass as the fierce cold continues to rot his body and soul. There is only the sound of his breathing. That is because he does not die. Hugh Glass lives on in this perpetually unfair mortal coil while his wife, much like the indigenous people she represents, fades away. The wilderness he has soiled with his and Fitzgerald’s blood, and their petty human concerns, will also one day fade away because of Glass’ people—but Glass and his kind keep breathing.
He is a survivalist at heart, and he did not survive grizzly bears, frozen river rapids, French gunfire, and an odyssey of snow only to give up because his revenge is quenched.
Rather, Glass will keep breathing even after the credits end, even if it means he is utterly alone. He still has fight and for better or worse it’s left him as the last man standing in a storyline ultimately filled with ghosts.
Then again, perhaps studying the real Hugh Glass might give audiences some clues about what the ending meant for this character…. Or not.
If one gives even a cursory glance into the real life events that inspired The Revenant, the word “inspired” quickly proves key. While there was a Hugh Glass who was mauled by a grizzly bear during Gen. William Henry Ashley’s expedition of 1823 in the Dakota Territory, the details almost immediately begin to blur. For starters, instead of the frightful cold pictured in Iñárritu’s film, the attack occurred during the summer of 1823 in August. Secondly, other details are muddied, such as Thomas Fitzgerald (not John) and Jim Bridger being Glass’ pallbearers.
Indeed, there is plenty of academic skepticism of whether the young lad who was said to have joined Fitzgerald in leaving Glass for dead was even Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a famous mountain man in his own right. The only primary accounts of Glass’ mauling from 1823—which did indeed come after Andrew Henry’s party was attacked by Arikara (or “Ree”) Indians—belonged to James Clyman and Daniel Potts. Clyman recorded that Glass “went off of the line of march one afternoon and met with a large grissly Bear… he attempted to climb a tree but the bear caught him and hauled to the ground tearing and lacerating his body in fearful rate.”
Potts meanwhile stated, “One man was also tore nearly all to peases by a White Bear and was left by the way without any gun who afterwards recovr’d.”
While Glass most certainly did nurse himself back to health and crawled his way over some 200 miles to Fort Kiowa, it wasn’t until 1825 that the first newspaper account added the detail that not only was he left in the wilderness after the mauling, but that also two men had volunteered to wait behind and bury him, and then didn’t (Thomas Fitzgerald and an unnamed youth, as according to Philip St. Cooke’s 1830 account).
Whatever the case might be, no version of this story prior to this film includes the poetic horror of a murdered son. While Glass was certainly left for dead and unarmed after the grizzly mauling, and likely by two compatriots who lied about his passing, the creation of Hawk (Glass’ half-Pawnee son played by Forrest Goodluck in the film) was wholly invented for The Revenant. But it sure makes revenge more necessary, doesn’t it?
According to the most widely accepted version of events, Glass finished nursing himself back to health at Fort Kiowa (which he reached in part with the help of the Sioux). He then hunted Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzgerald down to Fort Henry but only found a young Bridger there, who begged Glass’ forgiveness. Given that Bridger would have only been 19-years-old then, and that Glass blamed Fitzgerald for pressuring the young lad into abandoning him, Glass forgave Bridger. He then spent months returned to Henry's company before following Fitzgerald to Fort Atkinson the following summer (in modern day Nebraska).
He had planned to kill Fitzgerald, but upon finding his prey had enlisted into the U.S. Army, he realized that murdering Fitzgerald would be a crime punishable by death. Ergo, he let Fitzgerald live and only demanded that the man return his Hawken rifle to him.
Glass did in fact die from a battle though… 10 years later in 1833 when he was employed as a hunter for Fort Union and was killed during a skirmish with Arikara Indians. Gen. William Henry Ashley—whom Domhnall Gleeson’s Capt. Henry is also partially based on—meanwhile, did not die in a frozen tundra during a shootout with a man named Fitzgerald (nor did the real Andrew Henry). In fact, he went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives for the state of Missouri for five years before a failed bid for the state’s governorship. He died of pneumonia in 1836.
Ultimately, The Revenant takes very little from actual history and should be viewed on its own terms: an Alejandro G. Iñárritu fever dream about clashing cultures and a cruelly beautiful natural world displaced by our own prejudices. It’s a vision so strong that it even keeps breathing after the final frame.
This article was first published on Jan. 13, 2016.