Humanizing Revenge

As much as I loved Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, I can’t say I felt the same about The Revenant. I know the film won big at the Golden Globes and has received Oscar nods for Best Picture and Best Actor. Perhaps that’s because a fantasy lives deep inside us about exacting revenge where we believe revenge is due. Still, spending close to 3 hours watching the agonies of a man who’s brutally mauled by a bear, who can’t catch a break, is left to die by supposed friends, and has to endure one gruesome circumstance after another became almost unbearably tedious. Yet, I like nothing more than writing about a character’s psychological truth. There is much I can say about Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the very human desire for revenge.

Hating More Than Loving in The Revenant

Love and hate reside in everyone. Ambivalence is a part of love, meaning in its simplest definition that we sometimes hate the one we love the most. When hate is stronger than love, that’s where problems begin. What it is that tips the balance to hate over love is at the heart of many psychological difficulties, including vengeful acts of violence. Of course, Hugh Glass hated John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) for killing his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). It was an excruciating loss. As Glass said, “All I had was that boy and he took him from me.”

Revenge fantasies as well as acts of violent retaliation come out of deep hurt, betrayals, and intolerable losses. Often, these date back to early childhood. When childhood mistreatment is extreme, the real feeling reactions are sometimes covered over by cold non-emotional walls, dissociative disconnection, no apparent feeling at all. We see this in the personalities of many mass shooters. Hugh Glass was not a cut-off man. He had love. And, devotion. Hugh Glass had a deep capacity to care for his son.

The times Hugh Glass lived in, though, were in concert with the philosophy of “an eye for an eye,” of killing someone he had reason to hate. Plus, Hugh Glass had already lost his wife. The brutal killing of his son tipped his balance towards hate. He’d now lost all his loved ones. What else drove him to his act of revenge?

Not Getting Essential Love And Care

A lack of necessary love breeds hatred. We don’t know Glass’s childhood in The Revenant, but we do see cruel treatment by the men he was counting on for care after the bear mauled him. Fitzgerald and Bridgers (Will Poulter) left him to die, and Fitzgerald brutally killed his half-breed son; a son he was too weak to protect as he always had. He’d repeatedly told Hawk: “I’m here, I’m right here.”

No one was there for Glass. Although his Captain, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) entrusted Fitzgerald and Bridgers to watch over him until he recovered, Fitzgerald selfishly convinced Bridgers to abandon Glass. They dug a grave; half-buried him alive, and left him, knowing he would die without them. This kind of neglect, along with Glass’s helplessness against Fitzgerald’s mean-spirited unfeeling prejudice against Hawk, brings understandable rage.

Yet, as Glass’s wife had always said: “The wind can’t defeat a tree with strong roots.” A man with strong roots won’t be defeated either, and Glass’s roots were in his love and tough determination. The aphorism Hugh Glass lived by, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight,” served him well. When Hawk was killed, Glass pulled himself out of the grave he was left to die in with the sheer force of his rage.

Revenge was what Hugh Glass lived for in order to die a peaceful death. He wouldn’t let his son down. He’d live to see Fitzgerald pay with his life. He’d take matters into his own hands.

Acting & Not Stopping To Think Things Out

Taking matters into his own hands meant acting on his hate. Glass’s actions in The Revenant were certainly pre-meditated; he had a lot of time to think about killing Fitzgerald. With his resolve to get revenge, he even overcame significant physical encumbrances. Under the pressure of his hate, killing seemed the only “logical” choice.

When hate is powerful and impossible to contain, it gets channeled (often impulsively, sometimes not) into some form of action. This action might be explosive temper outbursts, demeaning words, or violent behavior. There isn’t, under these emotional circumstances, any ability to stop and think things out; or to believe there’s any other option.

What underlies and drives the hate is important. In Glass’s case, he was cast aside, abandoned, and betrayed. Quite commonly, such experiences of hurt and betrayal, particularly beginning in childhood, lead to a distrust of love and to the conviction that love and support will not be there under any circumstance, ever. When this belief exists, there is a tendency to turn away from people, and self-hatred for needing any love at all. Since no one exists without emotional need, a deep hostility develops towards those who are, inevitably, needed.

Glass, no different than others in such untenable situations, was on his own to take care of himself and to survive. The only thing that kept him alive, in fact, that gave him a super-human strength to rise out of his grave, half-dead, was the sweet taste of retaliation and revenge. Action, or we could say, “doing something about it”, seemed the only way to fix the problem.

Grieving Instead Of Acting

Doing something about it is not the only way to fix a problem, resolve a betrayal, or manage a loss. What if the culture and the times Glass lived in didn’t make murder an acceptable form of retaliation? Would Glass, a man capable of deep love, have been able to resolve his wish for revenge in a different way? With the help and a place to express his grief, he might have.

Grieving is the only way to go on with life after a significant loss. Glass didn’t grieve in The Revenant and he didn’t live. He died, with the fantasy of finally finding peace by rejoining his dead wife and son. As much as loss often brings fantasies of revenge, dying to join lost loved ones is not an uncommon fantasy either. Yet, both have to do with another more driving fantasy: that is, putting an end to intolerable feelings by ending someone else’s life or by ending your own.

After the film’s 3 difficult hours and his revenge, Hugh Glass settled the score, kept his promise to his son, and died. I got through those 3 hours and stayed alive, left with my thoughts about the psychological ins and outs of the human desire for revenge and what truly can resolve it.

My Thoughts In A Nutshell

Fantasies put into action don’t solve the agonizing sadness or difficulties going on with life after a deep loss. Acting doesn’t get rid of the rage either. Grieving is of number one importance. Sadness, anger, resentment, and guilt are all a part of grief. Learning to tolerate ambivalence, to love and hate the same person, is hard-won. It’s almost impossible to manage these feelings alone. The help of loved ones or a therapist – someone who cares, hears, bears witness, and understands is, in almost all instances, required.

Taking the need to grieve seriously, along with the hate involved, is critical. If grieving is done, then Hugh Glass’ kind of “fighting as long as you can still grab a breath” can take more positive forms. Even the rage might be expressed in more constructive ways than acts of violence. There is no “right” way to go on from major betrayals or losses. Some retaliate by success. Others go on by channeling their anger into various forms of helping others.

The only way to use your hurt and anger wisely is by, first, taking your feelings seriously. Find an ear or many ears to listen. Get help putting your anger and vengeful fantasies into an understandable context from your history. If you can do these things, you won’t have to turn away from loving feelings. And, you just might find a personal form of healthy and constructive revenge by going on with life in a way that profoundly means something to you.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.