Pädagogische Hochschule Vorarlberg
Studiumfür das Lehramt an Mittelschulen
Module: 815EN207 Introduction to Research: Course: Researching Modern Fiction
Subject: The Perception of Vengeance and Justice in The Revenant
Student: Florian R a m o s
Place and Date: Schaan, February 2017
While many sections of American history showed a great variety of both social and economic features such as not only the segregation of natives or slavery, but also the gold rush or the financial crisis, the movement of individualism had brought a significant change in the general perception of the term “responsibility”. While the perception of individualism of Robin M. Williams Jr. in the 1970s suggested that the individual embodied an inner representation of moral responsibility based on relatively independent judgement (Williams 502), another more current interpretation of Claude S. Fischer perceives the term not as “an egoistic, asocial individualism” like de Tocqueville did, but as a “covenantal, social voluntarism” (Fischer 363).
The Revenant, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, indicates some essential features of the above mentioned individualist movement. In this research paper, the focus will be selected upon the perception of justice and vengeance based on the perspectives of the characters and the environmental tribune of the film setting. By involving the above-mentioned aspects, the main objective is to provide a meaningful portrait of The Revenant which especially emphasizes its relatability. By adding some philosophically and psychologically relevant background information, the global structure will be strengthened. Furthermore, the involvement of those elements essentially support to prove whether the perception of vengeance and justice shift by the end of the movie.
The movie also features some philosophical declarations concerning the embodiment and expression of certain structures. It not only underlines the importance of family, but also shows some key characteristics of modern society. From the perspective of John Fitzgerald, the antagonist in the film, the attitude toward justice varies essentially from the perspective of Hugh Glass, who primarily plays the role of a sociable, patient and mentally strong character. As Fitzgerald, very well, represents the norms within our capitalist system (Sculos 1), his perception of justice shows a key difference compared with the protagonist.
As the movie especially underlines philosophical statements concerning justice and revenge shown by a broad range of different actions, gestures, intonation varieties, visual signs and other forms of expression – The Revenant not only represents a fascinating piece of film, but also provides a unique way of expressing individualism through various means.
The attitudes toward vengeance and justice which are represented by numerous means throughout the film, the viewpoints of both the protagonist and of the antagonist strongly differ in many significant ways. Admittedly, the philosophical ideas of Glass and Fitzgerald show a significant gap between their own perceptions of ‘what is perceived as just’.
The main character Hugh Glass obviously plays the role of the ‘good guy’ who is primarily presented as a sociable, strong and thoughtful person. At the beginning of the movie while the natives for the first time attacked the fur-trapper camp, Glass was trying to get most of his companions save on board to flee, with or without the pelts. Beside his superior attention to his and the others’ survival throughout the whole story, he clearly lacks the common racist attitude toward native Americans (Sculos 1) which gives – in contrast to most of the other white characters – proof of a more thoughtful character. Furthermore, his former wife, a native, was murdered during an attack of white soldiers. As his former wife had given birth to their son Hawk and who is also a member of the same fur-trapper unit like him, he adapted the native culture, language and lifeway underlining his role as the hero (Red Haircrow Review). As a result, Glass shows a broader, more tolerant stance according to his previous life which is shown by both his acts and behavior.
Therefore, the protagonist is originally perceived as a more rational individual whose emotions are overwhelmingly presented through family and friendship concerns. Although his personality is portrayed in a very positive way at the beginning of the film, his emotional expression significantly changes after the murder of his beloved son Hawk in front of his eyes. According to the overall plot, the first shift of perception can be observed during the killing.
Despite not having the possibility to defend his son and therefore avoiding the murder, Glass’ appearance, especially through his gestures and facial expression, is a meaningful and extraordinarily strong statement judging the action. While realizing that his son was brutally murdered by Fitzgerald, incredible pain and frustration could be noticed as the first response. Moreover, the according expression was not only visible through the character, but was also (and especially) observable through the environment which will be explained in the following pages.
After the first reaction as mentioned was happening, Glass’ shift of perception is overwhelmingly visible as well as emotionally challenging: watching his eyes, noticing the surrounding environment and realizing his determination to take revenge on Fitzgerald, the protagonist is serious about taking action. With the incredible amount of an emotional desire to avenge, Glass’ characteristics in the film drastically changed from an initially rational, balanced person to a completely emotionally-driven, vindictive figure.
Admittedly, the comprehensibility of avenging his dead son is clear. A philosophically similar reaction is to be expected in the 21st century as well, except obtaining justice legally through the courts rather than by murder in general. The actual objective, however, remains the same: retaliating the pain experienced by causing the same or bigger amount of pain to the villain. Glass fits in this description as his actual aim is to get revenge rather than just survive. Although Glass is miles away from civilization and understands that surviving in the freezing nature without any equipment is almost impossible, it is the immensely strong desire for revenge that is giving him breath to live (Schaap 9).
Since this incredible desire for revenge is a key feature throughout the movie, the director additionally put some essential emphasis on it. The perception of vengeance is dramatically hyped by Iñárritu as he gave Glass a native son (Schaap 10). Yet the actual story of The Revenant depicts true circumstances during imperialist centuries according to historical facts, there is neither evidence for an indigenous wife Glass had, nor any proof that he had children (Nation-Knapper). As a result, the film gave even more motivation to both understand and accept Glass’ intentions. Thus, as revenge is keeping up the whole film (Bryce, Casas), its dominion largely represents an emotional need to put oneself inside the protagonist.
Viewing at Glass’ special background as he feels and thinks like a native, a key question is yet to be answered when it comes to his actual aim. As he persuades his strongly emotional objective to retaliate the loss of his son, Glass’ motivation changes to a rather irrational human being. While his innate will to survive due to his obvious gorging thirst for revenge, he seems – from the murder of his son on forward - to be completely unable to remember the words of his murdered wife. Since she had always defended the right for revenge to belong to God only, Glass’ motivation reached a dramatical amount of emotions which stole the last tiny pieces of his remembrance.
Although the life of Glass’ wife had shown a typical tragedy connoted with American Imperialism, her ideology did not change despite having a legitimate reason to seek revenge for the oppression of the British. Her moral attitude toward her enemies was perceived as a key feature which regularly came into the mind of Glass. Unfortunately, the overwhelming dominion of emotional instability covered Glass’ mind completely, although it was clear that retaliation would not bring back the avenged (Native Perspectives Film Review).
The above-mentioned example of the murdered wife clearly underlines a substantial discrimination between vengeance and justice. Since she constantly pledged that revenge only belonged to God, she had not followed any desires to avenge her loss. Therefore, instead of seeking a form of retaliation, her moral beliefs undoubtedly proved that her persona is characterized by a higher, impersonal meaning. In contrast to Glass who did not respect that principle, his former partner “broke out” of an enduring cycle of revenge where there is no final closure. A more sophisticated explanation concerning the difference in meaning of vengeance and justice is given on pages nr. seven and eight.
Considering the philosophical background of the film, an essential amount of statements is expressed – as mentioned above – through various means rather than just by the characters themselves. Taking the scene when Glass found the dead body of his son, many (better said only) nonverbal aspects had a great impact on the viewer’s perception. A major part of those nonverbal signs depicts the beautifully shot nature which, indeed, emphasize or even create meaningful declarations. The cold winter landscape let one feel the frustration as well as the pain Glass had to face. The snow on the grounds, the uncomfortably authentic wounds on Glass’ body or the endless skies fundamentally supported to put oneself in the protagonist’s position.
Regarding the visual film setting throughout the film, water and sky are presented as key symbols which both deliver philosophical messages. As the camera was often lifted to the limitless sky, there was a touch of homesickness noticeable which is symbolically associated with ‘being off civilization’. Moreover, that kind of vastness even indicated some sort of terror (Nation-Knapper). Whenever Glass had to face emotional challenges, the environment – simultaneously appearing with a perfectly suitable melody underlining the story – set to double down its actual meaning by adding cold snow, frightening fog, lonely skies and never-ending rivers. Respecting all the aspects involved, the definition of ‘terror’ indeed is an appropriate choice to describe those painful and frustrating situations.
Since the film depicted beautiful shots, many of them indicated meaningful, philosophical significance. Describing the scene in which Glass looked at the big pile of all the dead animals (The Revenant), it seemed clear that a strong message is sent out to the viewers. Yet the work of all the trappers ensured their income to guarantee a livable life, the protagonist – after having had a bunch of emotionally severe challenges – didn’t make the impression that all the work was rewarding to him. In contrary: Glass experienced the real, the tough reality and discovered what really matters to him. Having survived under very hard circumstances and as he tirelessly persuaded his desire to avenge his son, the output of his efforts was not worth risking his life and losing his son as well.
With a view to the message brought by the shot, it delivered not only the question of worth, but also carried a critical view on the governing capitalist system. Since those norms did not know any ethical restrictions, the trappers increasingly disregarded their own personal value due to the rising importance of seeking more and more profit. While Fitzgerald successfully made Bridger and himself leave the severely wounded victim in order to finally get his reward, Glass was left to die on his own by his closest companions (Schaap 9). Therefore, considering the cold behavior of most of Glass’ colleagues during their decision whether they want to stay with the protagonist, it completely seemed ordinary to prefer individual over common interest.
In absolute contrast to Glass, the antagonist in The Revenant plays an entirely different role throughout the film. John Fitzgerald, a narcissistic, impatient and greedy trapper perceives the term ‘justice’ in another, but common manner. He and probably many others of his companions primarily think of their own profit. Thus, receiving a reward for their work is understood as ‘just’ since the motive observed is clearly rational. Fitzgerald is not in need of vengeance during his trapper carrier but wants to obtain the best turnout he can possibly get. Solely comparing his motive (not his acts) and his philosophy to efficiently use the existent structures for his own interest, our whole financial system is basically reflecting that kind of thinking.
Describing the scene where Fitzgerald wanted Glass – while his disability to walk and speak – to blink to legitimately end his life, Fitzgerald’s major characteristic is noticeable. His extraordinary impatience makes him try to move forward as quickly as possible to ensure his own benefit will not be harmed in any way. Adding his greed for more and more money, the desire to obtain justice in the eyes of Fitzgerald is growing drastically until he decided, even consciously, to kill a wounded human being. With its apparent legitimacy, whose fulfilment is obviously perceived as a farce, the antagonist developed the most extreme level of persuading his own aims, no matter what might interfere with it.