We still think about American Sniper. But there is another, and it still thinks about Titanic.
The Revenant plunges blindly through the forest of January, in pursuit of a moving target it can sense but not see, nor define. The places between the pines are all quiet, but it fills the silences with the sound of its own breathing, haggard and out of sync, choked with stale blood.
Dead fish are bound to its legs for warmth, and later for eating. In spite of its many injuries, the singularity of its purpose lends it strength. Sometimes it pauses with something close to appreciation for the severe beauty that cradles it, Birdman’s circling above in great flocks, distinguishing the Earth’s limitable sky from the box office heavens. “What a lovely day,” it thinks. “I’ve heard that before somewhere.”
The winter before, American Sniper broke the January weekend record with an astonishing $89.2 million, far above the former record holder and a fighting whisper away from the Real 90s of the previous summer. Then Star Wars: The Force Awakens did that one better during the first weekend of 2016, squeezing past with $90.2 million in its third weekend, dissolving the season’s records while the East Coast of America still waited for any sign of snow to catch on its tongue. But neither of those box office tales can slow the hunter, because this is a revenant’s story.
Beyond American Sniper and Star Wars, there are other kings of January on The Revenant’s kill list: Liam Neeson and his Taken franchise; Kevin Hart and Ride Along, Coach Carter and Paul Blart aren’t safe either. January chills and hardens, just like a good revenant; even its victors are just ice cubes waiting to be dropped from a great height onto a hard floor. One of the slowest months of the box office calendar to gentrify, it’s also notoriously inhospitable to women: Katniss’s arrows have never held their flame past the New Year’s holiday.
A revenant’s mission is to kill, but just because you only make one decision doesn’t mean you’re never confused. It reaches a clearing where it finds two tracks extending in opposite directions through the deep snow: one freshly left by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and another, faded but trackable in patches, cut by the Star Wars special-edition reissue in January 1997.
It chooses the fresh blood, which proves slightly more daunting, more uphill. It passes a snowcovered helicopter and a patch of sign posts: “Cloverfield Lane,” etc. It pulls loose a thick piece of carpet from the rubble and tosses it over its back. Continuing on, The Revenant unsticks a lone Gummi from the carpet with its bloody fingers and devours it. Sustenance for a week, or at least a four-day holiday weekend.
The Revenant meets James Cameron at the river, where James appears freshly defeated, nude but for a cyan loincloth and tattered purple leggings. Perhaps they’ve both reached their end, the last place they’d expect to find it: together. “Revenge is in God’s hands,” The Revenant manages to choke through its open neck wound. But James Cameron doesn’t believe this. He never did and never will.
“I made the same journey as you are making, but years ago,” he tells The Revenant. “In fact, I spent fifteen years hunting down the same blue eyes you seek, eyes as blue as the ocean.”
The Revenant wheezes, staring blackly. “I traveled to Pandora and back,” James continues. “But all you have to do is kneel by that riverbed over there and find your own reflection.”
The Revenant scuttles toward the water; we only hear the snow crunch below and see the trees spin above until we’re at its rushing edge. The current is fast but it quickly slows, even begins to run backward. The Revenant snarls at the glassy surface: first it sees Birdman circling directly above, blocking out the sun, and then its own reflection comes into view.
In that image, it appears younger, thinner, shaved. Its wounds are gone. There is no vengeance in its eyes, just love. But what James said is true: they share the same blue eyes. The Revenant notices one last similarity in the otherwise distinguished reflection: they are both frozen, their long hair iced and matted. At this, the reflection slips away into darkness, sinking.
“Jack…” a female voice echos from behind, betraying a ripple where The Revenant’s reflection once was. Clouds pass overhead, the sky opens up, and some box office peeks through from the heavens, its rays alighting upon the river in strobe flashes. The Revenant curses and falls over, shielding its eyes. A light never so distant, bound to the Earth. Maybe that wasn’t a reflection. Maybe the box office heavens come from below.
The Revenant gasps for breath in new darkness and finds itself on a boat, but not the Best Production Design type. It’s a normal boat and he’s standing at the bow, facing out at the ocean. His hand grips something cold, but it’s not the railing. It’s an Oscar. He holds his hand out and gazes at it. After a moment, he loosens his grip and lets the statue fall into the water.
“Ah,” he gasps.
“When I was a boy, the box office heavens were here,” The Revenant recounts as it raises a leveled hand to pinpoint God’s location. “And America,” it continues, lowering its hand, “America was here. I used to want God’s money, but now I can steal Star Wars’ instead. In the nineteen Januaries since Star Wars’ special-edition reissue, the box office heavens haven’t put any more distance between us. But this is a revenant’s story, and The Revenant can’t find America.