In “The Revenant,” what is the significance of the final shot?

One of the most discussed films of 2015, The Revenant (2015) reunites director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki after their Best Picture-winning Birdman (2014). Much praise has been bestowed on The Revenant’s performances, cinematography, location shooting, usage of natural light, and ostensible story. Meanwhile, people have wondered about the ending: a final moment that unsettled some viewers, confused others and has sparked discussion and contention in post-movie conversations.

After a fight that leaves John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) floating towards his death, a battered and weakened Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) sits in contemplation. He sees an image of his deceased wife, who appears occasionally in his memories throughout the film. When the camera returns to his face, Glass slowly turns and looks into the camera lens. The screen goes dark, and his audible breaths continue to be heard as the credits begin.

The ending moment recalls the film’s beginning, which opens with Glass’s words, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You keep breathing.” Glass’s advice to his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), is revealing in both theme and character, as it establishes the fierce will to survive that will enable Glass to complete the film’s journey.

For most of the film, Glass’s reason to live is a desperate desire for revenge and justice. He hunts Fitzgerald, who not only left him for dead in the wilderness but also killed his son. The final encounter between the two men provides closure to that quest and a spiritual peace. Before dying, Fitzgerald reminds Glass that killing him won’t bring back his son. Glass responds with an epiphanic facial expression. He realizes Fitzgerald is right and decides not to take the killing into his own hands, instead allowing Fitzgerald’s battered body to drift downstream to a nearby clan of Native Americans who can exact their own revenge.

Glass’ Wife in The Revenant (2015)

It is then that the image of his wife appears, complete with a beckoning gesture that seems to summon him to the afterlife. Glass is severely beaten up and alone in this moment, and while that hasn’t stopped him from surviving the 150 preceding minutes, one wonders how long this man can continue to beat the odds in such unforgiving territory. Moreover, we marvel that he’d even want to go on punishing himself. As his wife turns and walks away, Glass turns to us and continues breathing after the screen goes black.

The Final Shot of The Revenant (2015)

Everything about this conclusion feels circular. His wife’s appearance can be read as a moment of questioning: an “Are you ready to join me yet?” inquiry. The continued breath into the credits implies his answer: no. He still has breath, so he must continue to fight, else he would be a hypocrite to the life-affirming philosophy he imparted to his son.

The fact that Glass turns and stares into the camera is also an interesting directorial decision. Some interpretations around the Internet refer to this moment as breaking the fourth wall, but that’s not what we’re seeing. Breaking the fourth wall involves a character acknowledging the presence of the audience, drawing attention to the reaity 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. Instead, it is a thematic representation of presence. That presence he senses is perhaps something greater — life itself or a higher being. In this shot, the audience looks into the soul of Hugh Glass; Hugh Glass does not look at us.

His expression as he turns to the camera is poignant yet inscrutable — does he appear satisfied, fulfilled by his vengeance or the fact that he did not take revenge with his own hands? Or does he find futility in his continued survival when his wife and child are gone? Glass now has no obvious reason to live, and he accepts his mortality, yet he will not invite his death. In this moment with that look into the lens, he has resolved to keep pushing so long as he has breath.