There we were, our buttocks clenched in astonishment and horror from the past two and a half hours, knowing The Revenant was going to end soon. Then something strange happened. Breathing heavily, the main character Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is looking straight at the camera, straight at us, just for a short moment, before the ending credits set in and his disembodied breathing continues for a while. We are left wondering what happened. What did Glass’s facial expression say? (Spoilers ahead)
There has been a lot of speculation and discussion regarding the consequences of The Revenant‘s last shot, up to the point that it virtually has become an equal of Inception‘s spinning top. The most logical explanation I’ve found was provided by Screenprism‘s Jeff Saporito, who, in a short article on the subject, argues that Glass “accepts his mortality, yet he will not invite his death”, which he cleverly backs up with quotes from the film. However, the continuation of the story shouldn’t be regarded as important as it is by many viewers. Most of The Revenant‘s story is quite finished: it’s not that relevant whether Glass dies or not, because he got his revenge and simultaneously learned some valuable lesson. Last scenes like those of The Revenant or Inception trick us into thinking that it might be important to know what happens to Leonardo DiCaprio, by leaving something unfinished. We can’t handle not knowing how it’s going to end, but there are as many possible endings as there are interpretations of the story and so, basically, there is no answer to the question the film’s ending poses.
Far more interesting than the narrative effect is the cinematic effect of this notorious last shot. In the very same article Screenprism‘s Jeff Saporito aims to invalidate a widespread interpretation of Hugh Glass breaking the fourth wall:
“Breaking the fourth wall involves a character acknowledging the presence of the audience, drawing attention to the reality that they are players in a cinematic environment. Glass does no such thing — his look does not imply awareness that we are watching in a movie theater.” (Link)
Saporito proceeds by claiming that Glass doesn’t see the camera, but something greater than himself, “life itself or a higher being”. According to him, DiCaprio doesn’t look at the audience, but the audience looks into “the soul of Hugh Glass”.
I’d like to argue that breaking the fourth wall is very much what director Iñárritu is allowing to happen in the last seconds of The Revenant. With looking into the camera, no matter what his facial expression might imply, Hugh Glass acknowledges the very presence of the camera and thus breaks the fourth wall in reflecting on the artificiality of the film. There is no more direct way in movies to reflect on the medium than have a character look into the camera. Furthermore, this last shot might be the most obvious, but is not the only instance in which the camera suddenly plays an important role in a scene. We see Glass breathing into the camera more than once and Iñárritu allows the lens to be covered with condensate. When the protagonist is carried by the violent waters of the river, the camera – another camera than the one used in the rest of the film – has as much a hard time not drowning as Glass. Even the movement of the camera in some of The Revenant‘s scenes, especially in one of the first scenes in which the men of the fur trading expedition are attacked by an Arikara party, is so unnatural for the audience that we cannot ignore the fact that the use of the camera is very much emphasized. The following excerpt shows the presence of the film’s technicality perfectly.
Unfortunately, the selected fragment has been removed from YouTube
The camera seems to be a person in itself, walking at the same pace and in the same lines as the characters in the scene, looking at essential events, as if turning its head, all in one shot. The movements of the eye through which the audience perceives the event places the spectator in the middle of the fight – no 3D or IMAX required – and implies the existence of the person controlling that eye. Clearly most of The Revenant is shot with a wide-angle objective, and with the movements the camera makes in this particular scene, the wide-angle distorts the surroundings in an unnatural way. This creates a strange tension between pulling the audience into the film with person-like movements of the camera and alienate the audience from the film through the use of unusual angles.
All in all these effects of the camera are symptoms of a discreet kind of metafiction. The question is: what role does this reflection on itself play in The Revenant? The camera’s oddities, especially when Hugh Glass roams the wilderness in isolation, pose the protagonist’s solitude as rather ambiguous, because with the camera clearly present in his struggle, his confinement becomes strangely simulated. The camera is a merciless bystander, only observing Glass’s painful endeavor and never interfering, which displays the central odyssey as far more disturbing, damaging and unsettling.
Amidst The Revenant‘s beautiful cinematography, amazing acting and brilliant storyline, is the ominous, haunting observer – not only the camera, but the audience as well. We watch as Glass takes on his crippling journey, and we are unable to help. When Glass, in the last seconds of this amazing film, looks back at the camera, it’s as if he finally fights back, confronting us with our disturbing role as spectator.