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.