THIS CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS.
The Revenant takes place in Montana in the 1800s, but most of it could’ve happened any time since the last Ice Age, in any cold part of the earth.
There’s the snow. The wind. The trees. The slow shaggy meaty animals and the quick fierce ones that bring them down.
Men in heavy furs trudge across this landscape. They carry spears and bows. They know the trick of making fire. They catch fish with their hands in the cold river. When a storm blows through, they cut the trees and build shelter.
Some ride horses, which no one had done yet in the last Ice Age— but apart from that, this movie is not about any particular time or culture. It is a movie about Man.
“Man” is a loaded word, I know. But that’s who this movie is about.
Man grew up in a world full of ways to die. Many animals were big enough to kill him easily. Some of these actively hunted him. Others could kill him with antlers or hooves. The cold itself was a living thing that creeped in through the folds of his tent and the layers of his clothes. River currents could sweep him away. Plants could poison him. Wounds could turn bad and rot him from the inside.
What does Man do when his prey dies off? He finds a new prey. What if the new prey is too fast? Man invents new weapons to hunt it. When if it’s too big to kill? Man chases it at his own pace, day after day, hounding it whenever it stops to eat or drink. Every morning when it wakes up, Man is there, waiting. Every night, Man stops just out of reach and builds his fire. Day and night this keeps up, until one evening the prey collapses, too exhausted to move or fight back. Man closes in. The last thing the great shaggy beast sees is a troop of hairless apes dragging its head aside so the one with the knife can hit the jugular…
Much later, Man has no more great shaggy beasts to kill. He’s found a new thing instead: food that grows wherever he plants it. As long as there’s water, this works perfectly. Problem is, this new place is far from the river, and other people live by the river, and they guard their river vigilantly. Man has an idea. He goes and talks to the people by the river, offers them some of the food he’ll grow in exchange for water from the river. “How will you carry so much water from the river?” They ask him. “We won’t carry it,” he answers. “We’ll build our own river.” No one has ever built a river. No one has dreamed it before. But Man and his family build their river from wood and mud-brick; a little river that flows from the big river, branching out across the plain like veins in a hand, turning all the land into land that grows food.
Man lets fruit juice sit out until it turns to poison, then drinks the burning liquid because he likes how it makes him feel. Man pierces his own flesh, and the flesh of his loved ones, and runs bones through the torn flesh, because he likes how it looks. Man runs toward fire, the hot pain from which all other animals flee, and grabs pieces of it and brings it inside his cave to keep him warm.
You are here today because your distant ancestors — all our distant ancestors — were the absolute toughest bunch of bastards on the planet.
This is why, even if our base natures get the better of us and we turn on each other; even if we bomb ourselves back into the stone age; I will still have hope for Man.