The fear of death grips us all. It can feel like a large gaping hole in our field of knowledge and experience. We are born with the instinct to self-preserve, and fear can be one of our biggest motivators. In the award-winning film The Revenant, the fear of death is a central theme, especially as displayed through the antagonist, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), whose methods and motives of self-preservation contrast those of the protagonist Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio).
What is the biggest indicator of fear in Fitzgerald’s life? It’s his hoarding.The word “revenant” originates from the French verb revenir, which means “to come back” or “to return.” Leonardo DiCaprio is a haunting apparition in his Oscar-winning role as Hugh Glass. He primarily haunts Fitzgerald, but in a way he also haunts all of us. Glass is living proof of a battle with death. He fights death in the form of a bear and continues the battle for life as he seeks revenge for the death of his son. Glass haunts us all because he has faced one of the biggest fears of mankind—death. Yet by the end of the film, Glass is able to say, “I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already.”
Fitzgerald is the embodiment of the fear of death. We all to some extent fear this great unknown and try to avoid it. Like Fitzgerald, we tend to run and not engage. One way we attempt to run from death is through the storing up of treasures on earth. Fitzgerald has this tendency as well. When I first watched the film, Fitzgerald did not look like a fearful man to me, so I was shocked to recognize this about Fitzgerald later in the film. In fact, my initial thoughts of him were that he was confident and calm, hardly characteristic of fear. But appearances can be deceiving, as we all know. Fitzgerald’s actions are greater indicators of the chaos inside him.
The film’s opening scene culminates in a bloody Indian raid of the fur trappers’ camp. Many men run to the boat to make their escape. But not Fitzgerald. He walks with an air of irritation and disgust towards the escaping boat, grabbing pelts on his way. All the men are leaving things behind, but Fitzgerald takes things with him. Later, as the small band of surviving men regroups, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) addresses Fitzgerald about taking the pelts. The Captain tells him he should have left the pelts behind, because his life depended on it.
To this Fitzgerald says, “Life? What life are you talkin’ about? I ain’t got no life! I just got a living and the only way I get to do that is through these pelts!”
It’s easy to think the other men trying to escape the camp were more fearful than Fitzgerald, because they didn’t take the time to grab any possessions. But by taking the time to grab these pelts at the risk of his life, Fitzgerald makes a statement about his desires. He desires wealth and material goods at a high cost—the cost of human life. Greed for material wealth can sometimes be an indicator of the fear of death, because we are trying to outrun our own mortality. Greed tells us that this life is all there is and this earth is our permanent home, so we must build our kingdom here. Hence, Fitzgerald is storing up treasures on earth when he takes the pelts which represent his livelihood. Here we see his first attempt at self-preservation through his need to control and accumulate possessions at the cost of human life. And it doesn’t take long for the cost to transfer from himself to others.
After Glass is attacked by a bear the men find him burdensome. They know he is making the snowy trek more difficult and slowing them down from pursuing enemies. Fitzgerald and his young comrade Bridger (Will Poulter), as well as with Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), stay behind with the dying Glass when the Captain offers a reward. It is during this waiting period that Fitzgerald’s fear bleeds to the surface. He knows it is dangerous to stay behind, and the longer Glass takes to die, the more susceptible they are to attack. Also, a large reward is at stake here for Fitzgerald. At one point he talks to Bridger about his plans for acquiring land with his money once he’s back home.
Danger and money combine to incite the fear of loss and death for Fitzgerald. He asks Glass, “What makes you go on?”
Fitzgerald is impatient for Glass to die, so much so that Fitzgerald wants to end Glass’s suffering permanently. He makes a deal with Glass (who at this point cannot talk from the throat wounds he suffered from the bear attack) to end his life if he blinks. So Fitzgerald waits and watches. Glass keeps his eyes wide open, but inevitably closes them. Then Fitzgerald begins to suffocate him. Hawk sees this and tries to protect his father, only to lose his life to Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald silences Hawk with a knife out of fear of being discovered by attackers. He had pled with Hawk to be quiet, before impulsively killing him instead of his father. Bridger returns, and Fitzgerald lies to him, saying he saw Indians coming their way when he was down by the river. He projects his own fear onto Bridger and tells him they must leave behind Glass, who will die anyway. Bridger is reluctant, but finally his own fear propels him to go with Fitzgerald, leaving behind his water canteen for Glass.
This is Fitzgerald’s self-preservation at its peak. Again, wealth is at stake here, and he is in a vulnerable position. Here we see that the cost of self-preservation for Fitzgerald is as high as taking a life. His fear is leaking out through the cracks. First, Glass is slow to die, so Fitzgerald “kills” him. Then Hawk’s screaming and yelling provokes fear of discovery and attack in Fitzgerald, and he kills again. Lastly, Bridger comes back and Fitzgerald fears he will find out about Hawk, so Fitzgerald lies to Bridger, and they run away—abandoning Glass.
Fitzgerald and Bridger do make it to safety and get the reward. But safety is an illusion for Fitzgerald. A group of men discover Bridger’s water canteen, and Bridger (who never knew what happened to Hawk) says that Hawk must be alive. But Fitzgerald knows the truth, and the canteen foreshadows what’s coming for him. The revenant is on his way. Glass has survived death and is coming to haunt Fitzgerald. Fear kicks back into high gear, because Fitzgerald’s well-thought-out plan for his reward money is at stake. And yet again we see him preserving his life through money when he steals everything from the Captain’s own vault before fleeing to the woods. Glass returns and finds Fitzgerald missing. Clearly now fear is on the surface, leading to this exchange between Glass and Captain Henry:
Glass: He’s afraid. He knows how far I came for him. Same as that elk, when they get afraid they run deep into the woods. I got him trapped, he just, he doesn’t know it yet.
Captain Henry: How can you be so sure?
Glass: ’Cause he got everything to lose.
What is the biggest indicator of fear in Fitzgerald’s life? It’s his hoarding. Throughout the film, Fitzgerald doesn’t just run away; he runs away while taking, whether pelts, human lives, or money. As Glass says, Fitzgerald is afraid because he has much to lose.
We can also see Glass engaging in self-preservation in the film. But there are some interesting differences between how and why he self-preserves as opposed to Fitzgerald. The opening lines in the film give the essence of self-preservation: “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe…keep breathing.”
Glass tells this to his young son after he suffers from a fire burn. And Hawk in turn says this to his father after the bear attack. Glass continues to repeat this to himself on his journey to find Fitzgerald. Glass did not want to die either. He never made the deal Fitzgerald wanted to end his suffering. Glass is a survivor. There are numerous times in the film where he should have died. But Glass keeps breathing, due to his own self-preserving survival techniques; yet an unseen hand also appears to control circumstances around him.
Glass loses his life when his son dies, but he finds it when he relinquishes death into the hands of the creator.It reminds me of the book of Esther. God is never mentioned, but it’s clear that providence is at work through the people and circumstances. Glass fends for himself, but there is also a providential provision when a herd of buffalo appears out of nowhere. Then a pack of wolves kill a buffalo in front of Glass, seemingly just for him. Next a Pawnee Indian man appears on the scene, sharing the buffalo with Glass and then becoming his short-term companion. If Glass hadn’t met this man, he would never have been saved from a snowstorm and healed from his wounds. And if this man had not been killed by the French, This providence may help Glass out some, but it’s a bit problematic, given that so many good people around him apparently die.Glass would never have happened upon the French camp where the Indian Chief’s daughter was held hostage. And if Glass had not freed the Chief’s daughter, the Chief would not have spared Glass’s life at the end of the film.
Of course, even though providence might be protecting Glass’s life, it’s clear providence did not protect Glass from pain and loss. The film’s director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, refers to this in an interview with Christianity Today:
My theory is that life is a relentless number of losses that we suffer. From when we’re born to when we die, we are losing. . . . For me, it’s about how you deal with that, how you transform pain. Because I think pain should not be enjoyed, but pain is something you can transform. . . . This is how nature works. The flower grows and blooms, then dries and dies, and is born again. It’s a constant part of life. One theme of the film is Hugh Glass remembering who he was and what he lost. The heart of the film is a love story, with a Pawnee woman that [Glass] loved. He crossed any boundary of racial issues and prejudice and loved her, and he loved his son. And he is remembering what he loved.
This is where we also see Glass self-preserving, but on behalf of what he loved. He keeps breathing and fighting for life after the bear attack, because of his son. And he continues to survive on behalf of his son as he pursues Fitzgerald. Why could Glass say he no longer feared death? Because, as he says, he has already died. We know he never dies physically from that bear attack, so what death is Glass referring to? The emotional death he faces as his son dies before his very eyes. Unlike Fitzgerald, whose life revolves around himself, Glass’s life revolves around another. Glass has nothing left to lose in his pursuit of Fitzgerald, so he no longer fears death himself.
In the end Glass relinquishes control (which his antagonist never did) by giving Fitzgerald over to the Indian Chief. The Indian Chief then spares Glass’s life, because Glass has saved his daughter. Fitzgerald takes a life, and his own life is taken; but Glass saves a life and his life is spared. Glass respects human life, but Fitzgerald does not. In much the same way, fear can make us love ourselves first before others. This is true of Fitzgerald, but not of Glass. Fear can also turn us inward, until eventually we are consumed by it, as in the case of Fitzgerald; whereas Glass is not consumed, since he ultimately does not take revenge by his own hands. Because Glass no longer fears death, he is able to relinquish control. He knows it was just as the Pawnee man tells him: “Revenge is in the creator’s hands.”
Revenge here signifies death and, like Fitzgerald, it is death that we all fear. Theologian Carl Trueman backs this up with his own theory of death borrowed mainly from Pascal with twists of Augustine. “Much of life,” Trueman says, “can be explained as an attempt to deny or escape from death.”
This is clearly true in the life of Fitzgerald as he seeks to control his life through hoarding wealth and possessions, only to run continually in fear of losing them to death. But what happens to him in the end? He dies, as is inevitable. Death comes for him in the form of a revenant: Glass.
Jesus speaks to this situation in Scripture when he calls us to take up our cross and follow him. What does the cross represent? Death. It eventually means physical death for us all, but it is also a non-physical death—it is the everyday mundane little deaths to ourselves we are called to accept on behalf of God and neighbor. Sometimes this non-physical death to ourselves can result in various forms of pain and suffering, both large and small. And isn’t this what death is? The ultimate pain and suffering? But what does Jesus say after he tells us to pick up our cross daily and follow him? “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Luke 9:23-24).
Fitzgerald tries to preserve his life on earth through possessions and wealth, thereby denying death, but in the end, he loses everything. Glass loses his life when his son dies, but he finds it when he relinquishes death into the hands of the creator. Like Glass, Jesus died the death we fear most. Jesus faced our worst fears; like Glass, he can say of death, “I done it already.” Jesus is our revenant, but he doesn’t haunt us and seek revenge; instead, he comforts us and offers to walk lovingly with us to the other side.