When I first saw The Revenant I was filled with frustration about what I perceived to be a rather indulgent delve into academic cinema. I was upset Glass (DiCaprio) broke the fourth wall at the end of the movie, because I didn't understand why he was looking at me. I typically love when filmmakers use this tool, especially when its justified as it is in The Big Short, however I was left pondering the meaning of the look of sudden awareness in Leo's eyes. My first reaction was "WE KNOW YOU WANT AN OSCAR, LEO! WE KNOW!", and he probably deserves one by now. My second thought erased that judgement. "He wouldn't be that arrogant. After all, he has consistently selected beautiful films to work on." Then it hit me. It was an accusation.
At the beginning of the film there are three separate groups fur trapping in the area: the French, the Americans, and the Indigenous people. The first scene of the movie shows the Native Americans ambushing the American group and viciously killing most of their men. We find out later that the chief of this particular tribe is searching for his daughter, who he believed to be kidnapped by the Americans. Glass and his son, a direct descendant of a separate Native American tribe, are working for the Americans as navigators. This attack leaves them with a small posse of fur trappers mostly consisting of fearful racists.
After Glass is mauled by a bear, the group leaves three men to look after him: his son, one young optimistic fur trapper, and Tom Hardy's character, a self-absorbed lunatic. Hardy's character is afraid that the tribe that attacked them will catch up if they don't put Glass out of his misery. When Glass reluctantly agrees, Fitzgerald (Hardy) begins to strangle him. Glass's son walks up on the action and intervenes, adamant to keep his struggling father alive. In the crossfire, Fitzgerald ends up killing Glass's son, and attempting to bury Glass alive.
This sets Glass out on his journey for revenge. But who is he seeking revenge from? Is it Fitzgerald alone? Probably not. Fitzgerald represents a culture that has invaded the land of the indigenous people, and stripped it of all of its profitable assets. A culture that inflicted so much death upon the indigenous community, that one of the fatalities was Glass's wife. Fitzgerald didn't kill his wife, but the group that he associates himself with certainly did.
About halfway through the movie Glass is still struggling to survive the treacherous terrain and seek revenge. He runs into a lone Native American who ends up offering him transport and assistance with his declining physical condition. On their journey together we see them become fast friends as they share food and watch snowflakes melt on their tongues. The Native American notices that Glass's wounds are infected, so he sets up a kind of steam tent to act as a healing disinfectant. He puts Glass in the tent and seals it. When Glass wakes up he finds his savior stripped and hung from a tree by the French.
Once again the invaders have robbed him of his one source of happiness in the world. We can see Glass fall even further into his lust for vengeance. And we support him one hundred percent. He's been through a kind of hell none of us privileged audience members could possibly imagine. "GO KILL THAT S.O.B. LEO!".
Finally, Glass comes face to face with Fitzgerald. It's the ultimate showdown that we've waited almost three hours to see. After a drawn out chase, and an intense battle, Glass finally immobilizes Fitzgerald. The time has come. The audience is thinking, "DRIVE THAT KNIFE INTO HIS BLACK HEART!". Glass hears the footsteps of horses. He looks up to see the chief of the tribe that raided the American camp in the beginning of the movie. There is a look of mutual acknowledgement between them. Glass sends Fitzgerald's body floating down the stream to the feet of the chief. Then, through the sounds of butchered flesh and piercing screams, we know the chief has finished the job.
This moment symbolizes the destruction of a mutual foe. Not Fitzgerald, but the invading white man. The man who has caused Glass and the chief all of their suffering. They are at peace.
Or are they? What good is this vengeance if the war just wages on afterwards. As Glass crawls on to whatever life lies in front of him, we see his satisfaction fade. He looks up and has a faint vision of the family that was taken from him. He will never see them again. Killing Fitzgerald didn't bring his son back, or his wife for that matter. He's still as beaten down and alone as he was when he set out on this vengeful journey. Then he turns and gazes into the eyes of the audience. The real enemy. The Americans who have all but forgotten the people that owned these lands before their ancestors came and took it from them. Who stole Glass's life from him? Maybe we did.