This essay will discuss two of my favorite films about wilderness survival, Carnahan’s The Grey and Iñárritu’s The Revenant, using the lens of Absurdism. While they’re two very different films, they share complementary perspectives on the existential place of man. I’ll explain some the symbolism and conflicts of each, and discuss why they offer strong lessons on Absurdist philosophy. As with all my analyses, I’ll stick mostly with the source material, but will reference other evidence when needed. There is a huge range of themes these two films have to offer, but this analysis will focus on their unique existentialism.
For me, what makes these films great is their Absurdist tone. To start, let’s define Absurdism as the philosophical view that because it’s a human need to find meaning in life, and because the universe is inscrutably complex or chaotic, we’re bound to fail in that endeavor. Hence, the pursuit of meaning is ultimately “absurd”, in the sense of being ironically futile. This isn’t to say the universe is meaningless, rather its secret logic is inaccessible to our minds.
In these two films, nature is the proxy for the universe, indiscernible to the “rational” (read: civilized western) man. To attempt to apply the rational (i.e. domination) of the modern man to the irrational and ancient natural world is to invite failure. As I’ll discuss later, in The Revenant this is ultimately a criticism of man’s unempathetic relationship with our environment, and each other. For this analysis, nature allegorizes a challenge for both film’s protogonists John Ottway and Hugh Glass. In the arc of their relationship to nature, they suppress their human mores and attune themselves to its secret logic.
Each film centers around a specific human weakness that nature is unsympathetic to. In The Grey, it is Ottway’s depression. In The Revenant, is it Glass’ vengefulness. For each, taking that human weakness to its logical conclusion will not mend their spirits. They seek an answer, which comes as a new different perspective on purpose and justice. In that perspective is salvation. It will help them embrace the Absurd. Let’s discuss the symbolism and existential crisis of each film separately, and come back to this salvation.
OTTWAY’S NEED FOR PURPOSE
In The Grey, John Ottway is a hired wolf sniper for an Alaskan oil company who’s thrown in charge of a band of survivors when the company plane crashes into the wilderness, only to be hunted by the wolves he knows so well. Ottway, who’s name either comes from the Germanic meaning of “one who is fortunate in battle” or the Old English Ordwig meaning “spear-warrior“, was certainly a warrior at heart, but due to his wife’s death, fell into deep depression.
In his suicide note to her, he admits having “nothing good to give the world”. Without a purposeful conflict to distract him from his downward spiral, he puts his rifle to his head. The echo of conflict, in the form of a wolf’s howl, stops his suicide attempt. It takes a plane crash to jolt him with purpose: urgency to keep the men alive. It energizes him to action, no more the mopey, gloomy Ottway earlier at the bar. Ottway needs a call to battle.
In his care are men who embody various aspects of humanity: Flannery is youth, Burke is family, Talget is religion and children, Luke is the fear of death, Henrick is the choice to live, each according to director Carnahan representing a part of himself. The most interesting one here is Diaz, who is unafraid of death (if his bravado is to be believed). In fact, Diaz welcomes combat, constantly challenges Ottway who is the “alpha” of the men, thrills in taunting man and animal. In conversation with Talget, he rejects the idea of fate and God for “old-fashioned luck”, and tells the group he just wants one more “fuck”, “that alone would be worth the fight”. He is a mirror the man Ottway unconsciously is relearning to be. It’s no accident, then, that in a their most intimate moment before the climax of the film they discover they share the same first name.
What Ottway faces is fear… not of death, but of being ineffectual. He eloquently comforts a dying passenger on the plane, almost projecting his own fantasy of death when he describes it as “sliding over you”, “nice and warm”. So, he doesn’t fear death, no, what brought the gun to his mouth was that he had “stopped doing this world any real good” (from his suicide note). We discover he lost his wife to disease, which he calls “bad luck, poison”. He’s lost the will to fight because the whims of nature struck her down with a challenge immune to a warrior’s violence.
THE ABSURD IS GREY
The “grey” for which the film is named is the grey of Absurd nature, alluding to the greyness of nature’s morality, and showing the literal greyness of the world against which the black and white silhouettes of men and animals stand in stark contrast. The men are constantly trying to escape the danger of visible grey, whether scavenging for supplies, trying to reach the tree line, starting campfires, crossing a chasm, drowning in a river… each time punctuated by the red of death. Ottway himself becomes the grey in the end, wearing all grey clothing to the alpha’s den.
“Do something. You phony prick. Fradulent motherfucker. Come on Prove it, fuck faith, earn it, show me something real, not later, now. Show me and I’ll believe you ‘til the day I die. I’m calling on you! Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
Ottway’s moment of crisis is when, having lost all the men to nature’s unfairness (“bad luck”) like he lost his wife, he demands at heavenward to “show me something real”, because “fuck faith, earn it!” as if nature or divinity operated on man’s meritocracy. When his challenge goes unanswered, he must accept that higher forces are immovable, and his lot is to fight regardless. “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.” He is a warrior reborn, his personhood (if not his life) is saved.
Ottway lets go of the identities of all the men (the wallets). He no longer needs to fight for them, he is giving in to his own natural instincts. “Don’t be afraid” his wife’s memory tells him again, don’t be afraid of fighting, nor dying. The poem here is critical:
Once more into the fray…
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.
Live and die on this day….
Live and die on this day…
I have a specific interpretation of the delivery of these lines. To treat each fight as a mortal one, the last one you may “ever know”, to be in the state of combat, that is true living. There are two readings of the repeated last line. Live, and [then] die on this day, but also live and die on this day, Ottway intones both readings a bit ambiguously. Life and death are dichotomous, but equal. The acts of living and dying are bound together as the definition of “the fray”. Both these senses can be true.
There’s no dichotomy of life vs death. They are halves of one definition for the vital struggle that characterizes existence. To believe we are excepted from death makes nature appear Absurd to us and our sense of moral order. Nature doesn’t prioritize either, it only effects eternal turnover. Diaz evokes this sense when he exults at the wolves “you’re not the animals, we’re the animals!” Predator and prey are temporal, circumstantial roles; we’re all animals. And as we’ll see in The Revenant, we’re all savages too.
DIAZ AS THE WISER OTTWAY
For me, the philosophical climax of the film was the scene at the riverbank where Diaz gives up. The tone, however, is not like Ottman’s suicidal one at all. Diaz is accepting of his end, even humorous about it. The scene is staged beautifully, Diaz sits at the peaceful center looking out at majestic nature while the other two face directions off-stage they want to head, and the river rolls on dispassionately in the background. The camera keeps breaking the 180-degree rule, showing both the men begging him to continue, and the vista that they aren’t noticing, at which in true Stoic fashion Diaz proclaims “I am not afraid”. Like The Revenant, this critical moment happens at a river bend, a place to reflect on where you came from and where you are headed. Diaz represents the other John Ottway, the one who’s accepted the Absurd.
It’s important that it’s Diaz who goes out this way. He doesn’t believe that luck is only bad or that it’s a force to combat. Throughout the film, he defers to luck in Stoic fashion. He accepts how wanton nature is. He doesn’t need a benevolent god to rationalize his life around; it’s just a “fucking fairy tale”, “fate doesn’t give a fuck.” Having embraced the Absurd, his end is peaceful and on his terms.
In the finale, Ottway faces the Alpha. It’s in overcoming the fear of death that a warrior becomes strong enough to avoid it. “Don’t be afraid” the memory of his wife tells him. This restores him to fighting form, and he dons man-made claws of his own. It ends in recitation of the poem, and then Ottway embodies the predator-prey cycle of nature. Inside the Alpha’s den but armed to fight, he is both. In the post-credits shot, we see his head resting against the dying wolf. It’s unclear if he’ll survive, but we know he has fought, and in that action he has truly lived. Separating the concept of living from survival and dying from failure, that’s nature’s lesson here, its secret logic.
GLASS’ NEED FOR VENGEANCE
In The Revenant, Hugh Glass is a frontiersman who is left for dead in a betrayal by fellow trapper John Fitzgerald after being mauled by a bear. Witnessing Fitzgerald murder his son, while too injured to stop him, Glass is filled with both rage and survival instinct until he can exact his vengeance. Unlike Ottway, Glass immediately lives the creed of “live and fight another day”, but only sees a very small and personal part of this until the ending.
Along his journey, we see Glass experience reincarnation over and over in cinematic metaphors where life and death juxtapose. Glass is saved from beneath the corpse of the bear, he dreams of his fallen wife’s soul leave as a bird, he bursts out of his grave like a ghoul, he sleeps on the corpse of son and places a fresh leaf in Hawk’s mouth. Later, he emerges from his dream shelter like a caddisfly leaving its twig cocoon, and is reborn from the gravid belly of his dead horse. Each birth strengthens him. Glass himself is enveloped in animals; he moves in bearskin, escapes through fish-laden rivers, runs by horseback, drinks from the snail-marked flask. These instruct us that in nature’s secret logic, death begets life as much as life begets death.
We see Glass constantly surrounded by the elements of fire, light, water, and most importantly, breath/wind (esp. in the B-roll). “As long as you can grab a breath, you fight,” his wife’s spirit tells him. The film breaks the fourth wall repeatedly to press the point, with breath and steam condensing on the camera lenses, and beautiful transitions like Glass’ breath to clouds over mountains to the airs tainted by man- Fitzgerald’s pipe smoke and campfire, all shot in deliberate sequence. Fitzgerald literally tries to take his breath, suffocate him, to kill him.
Death is a constant guide for Glass. I mentioned the words of his dead wife on breathing and fighting, but she also gives him wisdom, to seek stability in the trunk of the tree. Death hovers him constantly in the form of birds, like souls of the native peoples. He finds the visage of Death on a pale horse in Hikuc the Pawnee, another who has traveled a path like his. Hikuc is not Death the mythical lord of afterlife, but Death the everyman, another mortal turn on nature’s cycle, decaying and surviving until satisfying its role to beget new life. After Glass’ healing in the cocoon-like tent, we find Hikuc truly dead. Complete.
While Glass has attuned his actions to survive, he fails in the same way as Ottway to attune his philosophy. Vengeance is a man-made narrative layer we use to rationalize our anger at man-made injustices. “Revenge is barren of itself: it is the dreadful food it feeds on; its delight is murder, and its end is despair,” wrote poet Friedrich Schiller. Glass fed on the nutrition of his vengeance until the very end. He had Fitzgerald’s demise in hand when he’s asked a simple, yet critical question:
“You came all this way just for your revenge? Well you enjoy it, Glass, ’cause there ain’t nothing going to bring your boy back.”
REVENGE IS A DISH
With that, Glass is forced to contemplate the emptiness of his pursuit. Should he have his vengeance, he’ll be left with despair and spiritual hunger because his family will still be dead. In that moment, he realizes that his survival didn’t come from vengeance, but from giving in to the natural forces, and through that connection can he commune with his boy and his wife.
He realizes the sign on Hicuk’s hanging body was true, “on est tous de sauvages“: we are all savages, the natives, the French trappers, the American traders, himself and Fitzgerald, one moment wolves, another bison (recall the sequence before meeting Hicuk). Iñárritu’s films in particular are often about the interconnectedness and parallel experiences of disparate peoples and persons, even species. Throughout both films, our characters fluctuate from being predators to prey, often without warning.
Then Glass releases Fitzgerald into the river, for “revenge is in God’s [read: nature’s] hands” Hicuk said. The Arikara kill Fitzgerald, having themselves been both killers and victims. With that death, Glass lives. All are savages, all killers, all are killed, all are nature. Revenge is motivated by a sense of justice, but that is a man-made conceit in the face of nature. It is treacherous to be seduced away from survival by lust for that conceit.
In the final shot, Glass climbs to a peak and looks heavenward to see his wife’s spirit depart, satisfied that he has found peace the right way, and perhaps beckoning him to join. Both films end with their protagonists looking through the fourth wall, directly at us the audience, asking if we’ve internalized the lessons they’ve experienced. Have we understood the magnitude of our role in these natural cycles? Or are we destroying ourselves, either with Glass’ ineffectual bloodthirst for justice, or Ottway’s ineffectualizing fear of being ineffectual? Are we prepared to truly live? Or are we Fitzgerald, where the joke is that God is a squirrel for a deliriously hungry man, oblivious to the nature of providence?
If we don’t learn the secret logic of the world, and don’t understand its disinterest in our self-caused sufferings, then we’re asking our echo to tell us the meaning of life. There is no pat motivation that can be called its meaning. In the Absurdist view, the meaning is in the contradiction itself, between our efforts to understand versus the universe’s inscrutably complex momentum of cause and effect. True freedom, it’s taught, lies in simultaneously accepting the immutable Absurd with “benign indifference” (Camus) whilst revolting against it. In Tarkovskian fashion, nature’s divinity is in providing a platform for human heroism.
For humans, with our need to control our fate, we’d require deep, existential humility to see our connection to things outside our own existence. If there is an environmentalist message in these films, it is here. Our man-made moral sense- applying just consequences to actions- is myopic, and ignores the secret logic of nature at our peril. Like Glass, we need to attune to survive, and like Ottway, we need to fight fear with action.
Lastly, recall Ottway’s words to the dying passenger again: “You’re going to die. That’s what’s happening. It’s alright. Let your thoughts go. All the good things. Who do you love? Let her take you, then.” We are like that dying passenger, still bargaining, rationalizing, denying. We need to be that Ottway to our dying selves. Like Glass and Ottway, let who we love- our dear revenants- drive us to fight, lead us to peace, and finally, take us away when our role is complete. They’ve played their parts, and we shall play ours too.
“Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.” – Albert Camus