Did You Know The Revenant is Really About Russell Westbrook?
Let’s compare the two and find out
The next time you find yourself stealing your friend’s login information and scrolling through the HBO movie library, you may notice a new film has been added to the collection: The Revenant.
I’ve seen the movie twice now. Alejandro Iñárritu is probably my favorite director, and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki is one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy are also amazing.
But I know what you’re thinking: What the heck does this have to do with the Thunder? The movie is about a bunch of crusty old white dudes freezing their butts off in the Pacific Northwest right?
Well…yes…that may be true.
But it’s also a frighteningly accurate allegory for the career of Russell Westbrook and the 2016–2017 Thunder season. So accurate in fact that I’ve begun to wonder if it were intentional. Now I’m not saying Iñárritu is sending a Kubrik-esque message about his die-hard Thunder fandom, but I’m not not saying it either.
Take for instance how the movie formed, as much a mission to get Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar as it was a motion picture. One cannot separate the movie from the surrounding narrative of its star.
Undoubtedly, DiCaprio had come up empty-handed at the Oscars for many years in which he delivered worthy performances. An actor beloved by critics and popcorn-wielding movie fans alike, yet he was never deemed fit to hold the title of “Best Actor.”
Russell Westbrook obviously would win an NBA “Oscar” for costume design were the category offered, but in terms of actual awards he has found himself always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
In 2008–09, Westbrook finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting behind future-franchise-anchors Derrick Rose, OJ Mayo and Brook Lopez. In his sophomore campaign he averaged 20 points per game but was left off of the Western Conference All-Star team in favor of aging guards Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd.
“Yeah yeah, he’s a freak athlete, but we’ve seen erratic athletes before,” went the common refrain.
The next three seasons saw Westbrook average 23.5 points, 6.4 assists and 5.1 rebounds, but only resulted in three All-NBA Second Team nominations. A season later he watched as his teammate (unnamed in this context) hoisted the MVP trophy.
Casual NBA fans marveled at his highlights, and experts scrambled for ways to explain his impact. But he wasn’t even seen as the best player on his team, let alone the league.
The following year, 2014–2015, he won the scoring title and became the second player in NBA history to average over 30 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists in a month. Voters still decided there were three people more worthy of Most Valuable Player, as Westbrook finished fourth.
He placed fourth in MVP voting again in 2015–2016 despite posting 18 triple-doubles (tying Magic Johnson for most in NBA history in the past 50 years) while balancing the second most assists in the league with the eighth most points.
What it took for DiCaprio to get over the hump was a superhuman effort, shooting in conditions described as “a living hell,” and reportedly being willing to eat raw bison liver and sleep in animal carcasses.
Enter Russell Westbrook, 2016–2017, the year of The Revenant.
(Sidenote: this will make a lot more sense if you’ve seen the movie. So go watch it. I’ll wait.)
Stop me when you feel like you’ve heard this story before. The Revenant opens with a bunch of capable outdoors-men huddled around campfires, laughing and stacking their pelts from past conquests.
Then boom. Indians attack out of nowhere, raining down arrows and overwhelming the frontiersmen. The incident creates dissension among the group, and drastically changes the course of their journey.
Then the group faces a major decision: worry about the survival of everyone in the group and try to make it to camp together, or go every-man-for-himself and focus on transporting the pelts they want to sell.
The group sacrifices, but Tom Hardy’s “Fitzgerald” character really only cares about the pelts, leading him to eventually leave DiCaprio’s “Hugh Glass” character for dead out of fear for another Indian warrior attack.
It’s an almost perfect recreation of the Thunder’s 2016. The funny part about this side-by-side comparison is that at the beginning of the movie I actually found myself siding with Fitzgerald the most.
There was obviously no guarantee the group was going to make it to their destination, and he knew how valuable the pelts were. Besides, he was an excellent trapper and fighter!
And just as Fitzgerald did, I still to this day have nightmares of Klay Thompson’s three pointers raining down like so many arrows of death.
Similarly, I used to love Kevin Durant. Most Thunder fans would agree we found ourselves siding with #35 more often than we now care to admit.
We can argue the merits of both Durant’s and Fitgerald’s departures all day, but ultimately it was a selfish move, in so much as it prioritized individual success over the collective.
Yet in both cases, there is a ton of narrative left to be told.
In the byline for The Revenant on HBO, they cite a review in the Hollywood Reporter that calls it “a sensationally vivd and visceral portrait of human endurance.”
I’m not sure there’s ever been a better phrase to describe Russell Westbrook’s career. When I look back, I can’t think of a time when he has ever been able to really enjoy his success.
He’s had to overcome physical setbacks. I really hate to give Patrick Beverly this much credit, but he’s the bear: sneaking up and pouncing on the unsuspecting hero. To be honest, it’s only unrealistic part of this comparison exercise. Obviously, if Westbrook fought Beverly he’d win ten times out of ten. I’d even take him against a literal bear. Regardless, Westbrook has had to recover from three knee surgeries, and play at different times with a brace on his hand and a dent in his face.
He’s dealt with constant criticism. First because he wasn’t going to able to play the point guard position, then because he took possessions off on defense, because he turned it over too often, because he shot too much.
There have been emotional hurdles, from the departure of James Harden to the rebellion of Reggie Jackson. He’s felt defeat in deep playoff series and from missing the playoffs.
Has he ever been the league’s golden boy? Has he had a season where he receives everyone’s praise, like Lebron’s 2012 or Durant’s 2014? Never.
But he endures.
Like Hugh Glass in the movie, Westbrook simply continues to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. He has a mission, and he never wavers from it.
Ultimately Glass’s perseverance is rewarded with his revenge, something Westbrook will be looking for in one form or another this season.
But it’s important for Westbrook to remember that he couldn’t do it without some help. Victor Oladipo is like the friendly Indian who showed up out of nowhere and offered him a ride. Steven Adams is like the dead horse carcass that Glass sleeps in to stay warm. Andre Roberson is his giant bear pelt coat. Enes Kanter is the giant tree that catches his fall off the cliff. Billy Donovan is the captain, obviously.
See, this is the secret that Durant/Fitzgerald didn’t consider. When you sacrifice for the good of the group, the group will help you out in return. The group has your back.
What Fitzgerald learned at the end of the movie, and what Durant is going to learn this season is simple: Westbrook/Glass is the revenant, he’s going to keep coming back, even if you think you left him for dead.
And he’s got a whole squad of people behind him.