“Let us ask, therefore: What can the value or meaning be of a mythological notion which, in the light of modern science, must be said to be erroneous, philosophically false, absurd, or even formally insane? The first answer suggested will no doubt be the one that, in the course of the past century, has been offered many times by our leading thinkers. The value, namely, is to be studied rather as a function of psychology and sociology than as a refuted system of positivistic science, rather in terms of certain effects worked by the symbols on the character of the individual and the structure of society than in terms of their obvious incongruity as an image of the cosmos. Their value, in other words, is not that of science but of art: and just as art may be studied psychologically, as symbolic or symptomatic of the strains and structures of the psyche, so may the archetypes of myth, fairy tale, archaic philosophy, cosmology, and metaphysics.”
Joseph Campbell, “The Symbol without Meaning,” Flight of the Wild Gander, p.98-99
What worries me most about today’s audiences is that they don’t have the skills or their political worldviews and beliefs are so rigid they cannot properly interpret great cinematic storytelling when they see it.
To read, as one critic wrote, The Revenant is “… basically (a) circle jerks for white boys who think it’s significant to watch a “hero” suffer sadistically via dastardly betrayal, emerge battered yet triumphant against all odds and get that sweet, sweet revenge against an adversary who is 100% evil” is to fall short of the exquisite array of themes, symbols, dramatis personae, and archetypal struggles embodied and achieved in collaboration by some of our finest actors, director and cinematographer working today.
Indeed, The Revenant begins its thematic journey from the title (one who is raised from the dead) and then proceeds through the raw abject world of survival where its protagonist, the decent trail guide and loving father, Hugh Glass, is ravaged by the embodiment of nature itself only to be betrayed, buried and left to die by a loquacious and manipulative sociopath.
Here we have a protagonist/antagonist mano y mano duel worthy of and reminiscent of some of the greatest personal battles in cinema going back to Von Stroheim’s Greed and following through to Bladerunner’s Roy Batty v Rick Deckard.
Thematically, the filmmakers construct an ingenious metaphor for modern society so much more intelligent and pure than simple revenge porn. In the end Glass realizes that while revenge enabled him to survive against all odds, it comes at the cost of his own humanity.
In the end, he’s gone too far and can never go back. And he reveals this through his harrowing gaze into the camera in the film’s final moments.