The beautifully captured wilderness in The Revenant has an animus to it, directing Glass and the others as it wills, and ensuring that retribution is found.
From the opening, The Revenant immerses the audience, ankle deep, into a flooded wilderness. Glass (Leo DiCaprio) and son tread downstream, as if walking on water, and given the constant religious symbolism throughout, I doubt that it’s an accident.
The next scene introduces Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the antagonist. From his first moment, he’s pissing in the wind. As a character, his philosophy is at odds with Glass’s more spiritual leanings. He feigns faith, but he doesn’t believe in anything and makes off-hand jokes about a starving man finding God in a squirrel. He finds the concept of a God, other than him, absurd and throughout the film, whether literally or figuratively; he continues to piss in the wind—Go against the flow of the tale.
And there is a flow to it. Visually, the camera in Revenant flows from character to character in a seamless and grand fashion. It’s evident from the first action sequence, where a camp is raided and the camera shifts from prey to predator, feeding up a chain of strangers, until reaching Glass & Fitzgerald.
The films universe manages to carry each character to exactly where they need to be, when they need to be there. While one can call it a contrivance of writing, or a coincidence that Glass gets around as he does, I think that the director, Inarritu, tried to construct a subtle fairy tale wilderness, which plays a non-speaking role in the film. It ushers Glass through the woods and provides the bare minimum for him.
This is not to be confused with Glass being Lucky, because he isn’t. He gets fucking destroyed by a bear, left in the care of the psychopathic Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald also happens to murder his son & leave him for dead. But within the perimeters of the film, he’s seemingly caught in a current that carries him safely through a dangerous wilderness in order that he find Fitzgerald, and avenge his son.
Without giving away the whole film, I’ll try to provide some examples of the mystical flow within the film’s universe. It’s represented by a spiral flask that is handed to Glass before he’s abandoned and left for dead. The spiral flask might have something to do with Glass circling the drain, but it mostly signifies the whirling journey he’s about to be taken on—whether he likes it or not. Soon after receiving the flask, he’s swept downstream by a river while fleeing a band of murderous natives. He washes up on a bank, where a buffalo is killed within sight by wolves. Then, a native man scares away the carnivorous pups with fire, and shares the meal with Glass.
Glass shares his vengeful purpose with the native man, and unmoved, the native responds, “Revenge is in God’s Hands.” But again, within the perimeters of the film, “God” is not a bearded man from beyond as one might be accustomed to thinking, it’s a pantheistic force. It’s here that Glass has an induced fever dream: His son stands in a dilapidated church and turns into a tree. I assume the metaphor here is that his son is the only thing rooting him to the earth. To paraphrase a piece of dialogue in the film, his son is the only thing bracing him from the strong winds—the force of something larger than him. The dream reinforces his resolve and he sets out to track down Fitzgerald.
The search is long and treacherous, taking the audience through pines, up mountains and across frozen lakes. As I’m sure you can assume, he find’s Fitzgerald. And the moment Glass has Fitzgerald dead to rights, he realizes that he’s been an instrument of a force that’s grander than him. He recalls the words “Revenge is in God’s Hands” and understands that the flask which traded hands throughout the film, the river, the wizened native man, his horse, everything, and everyone, has conspired to help his vengeful mission. It’s then that he sends the mortally wounded Hardy down a river to meet his death—the only time Fitzgerald goes with the flow, har har.
To me, this is the point of Revenant. Glass fights like hell through the entire movie in order to survive, but by the end he’s stripped of all agency when he realizes that his small drama is taking place in a far grander one that is out of his hands.