And the Oscar for the most detailed man-mauled-by-grizzly sequence goes to… The Revenant! Applause. Next, Ryan Gosling getting hit by a truck, a four minutes uninterrupted take of pure cinematic pleasure.
Oh, it was just a bad dream…
I have been thinking a lot about the acclaimed sequence at the beginning of The Revenant, the one in which DiCaprio as nineteenth century’s trapper Hugh Glass endures and miraculously survives a bear attack. For our hero it’s the incipit of a long and brutal journey through the wilderness in a story loosely based on real events. He’s alone and wounded, pushing his body to the limits, but driven by the inextinguishable fire of revenge: his nemesis another trapper who, contrary to the order received, abandoned him to die in the woods after killing Glass’ son before his eyes.
I see the bear assault sequence as the perfect synthesis of Iñárritu’s film: both are spectacular, virtuosistic, painstakingly filmed, ultimately redundant tales of human suffering. Or maybe just DiCaprio’s suffering.
I don’t want to argue about how verisimilar is to have a grizzly walking over you and not have your spine and skull cracked or on the odds or surviving two assaults by the same bear that could easily kill a man just knocking him once with its clawed paw. This is matter of suspension of disbelief, and I am willing to do that, like I accept with little effort the fact that Star Wars storm troopers can’t ever hit anybody with their laser guns even if they are supposedly trained to do that since they were born.
So I’ll join the choir and say yes, it’s the Most Realistic Bear Attack Scene Ever Filmed! It’s probably also the longest and most exhaustive. But that doesn’t automatically make it Great Cinema.
It’s masterfully planned and shot and may be the best CGI achievement so far. But that doesn’t mean a five minutes sequence shot is the most effective aesthetic choice.
After being rightly showered in Oscars for Birdman one year ago, Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu had the funds and means to show us a bear massacring a man and, oh boy, does he show it to us. In real time, every paw and grunt and scratch and drop of saliva. We’ve never seen anything like this before, and understandably so: the scene was technically challenging and physically very demanding for its actor. But not always long uninterrupted takes heavy with CGI are the best option only because they are the most difficult to execute. In the same way that shooting a three hours long movie in the wilderness, only with natural light and in extreme challenging conditions for cast and crew does not art make. A filming accomplishment, sure. A masterpiece, not necessarily.
Why am I not convinced? I can’t help but think that the mauling could have been more impressive and memorable if we didn’t witness it in its excruciating detail. Often in films less is more. Take Psycho‘s famous murder in the shower: the strict production code forbid Hitchcock from depicting explicit violence, but with montage and the right soundtrack he was able to create one of the most iconic, and frightening, moment in the history of cinema. Without ever showing the knife hitting the girl. Ellipsis, off camera action, sound effects and music can go a long way. There’s editing too, a very powerful cinematic tool that Iñárritu seems to think is only for the lazy or less gifted directors. And that old rule of leaving something to the imagination of the viewer.
Paradoxically, with all the due differences, Grizzly Man‘s bear attack left me a much more poignant memory than The Revenant‘s one. Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary is about a urban bear lover and amateur documentarist who ends up being killed by one of those wild animals he so much admired. Obviously, being real life events, we don’t get to see the assault at all. The director only shows us the reaction of the victim’s friend in listening, with earplugs, to the real sounds of the killing, recorded by the man’s camera recovered on the scene of the massacre. It is more than enough. That missing footage haunts all the film.
As Stephen King noted, when we imagine the monster behind the door, there is no limit to the horror our mind can conceive; but when they show it to us, even with all the effort and craftsmanship and creativity, it’s almost a relief: it’s not as bad as it could have been. And sometimes, watching carefully, we can also see the zipper on the monster’s back.
What I want to say is that showing every bit of violence and pain in detail doesn’t represent a bold, uncompromising directing choice as much as an unimaginative one. That applies not only to the attack sequence but to everything that happens to Glass right after that, until the very end: just because you can show it all, and in lustrous cinematography, it doesn’t mean you have to.
In fact the rest of the movie shares the same misery-loving voyeuristic pleasure of the grizzly sequence. And the same redundancy. For two hours we see our hero suffer, dragging himself through snowy plains and icy rivers. Crawling, grunting, wincing, grimacing. Surviving rapids, hypothermia, septicemia, wolves and several Arikara ambushes. Cauterizing his wounds with fire and gunpowder, eating raw fish and raw meat.
When, after all of that, galloping on a newfound horse he fell from a cliff, many in the movie theatre I was in bursted into laughter: it was a bit too much. I guess for a moment we feared Glass would get hurt and crippled again and his journey and agony would never end. But no, he turned out perfectly fine and the only narrative reason for that incident to happen was the possibility of showing our hero gutting his dead horse and sleeping inside its carcass to survive the freezing cold. Which, apart from the in-your-face symbolism of having him coming out of the womb the next morning, also was not necessary. By that point we had already figured out that the wilderness is no joke and Glass is one tough cookie.
Somewhere in between the second natives attack and the umpteenth raw meal, Iñárritu lost me. I was not engaged anymore, just tired.
Lately, many seem to think that the more explicit the violence you see, the better the film or TV series. Game of Thrones’s frequent pulp sequences are often praised for their realism and production value, thus elevating HBO’ saga from your standard, cheesy fantasy movie. Also, the longer it lasts, the more powerful and auterish the director: his complex vision can defy industry standards and reach the audience intact (think everything ever created by Malik, Anderson, Nolan, Tarantino… ). So if it’s interminable and bloody, it must be adult and provocative cinema with state of the art special effects and creative freedom, as opposed to edulcorated, cheap family flics which just can’t or don’t want to show you the real thing. Pussies!
Even more audacious and uncompromising a film that’s shot in harsh, drastic conditions, proclaiming to push the boundaries of cinematography. The Revenanttakes that challenge to the next level, being filmed entirely in the remote wilderness, in minus forty degrees, with DiCaprio really swimming in ice cold rivers, eating raw liver, wearing a 40 kilos bear fur and, together with the rest of the crew, risking hypothermia and pneumonia every day for nine months. That is macho filmmaking at its best.
I have difficulty believing that the props department of a top budget movie couldn’t come out with a good substitute for the raw meat. After all, who among the audience could tell the difference? Personally, I couldn’t, not having had raw bison liver in quite a while. But filming the (vegetarian) actor chewing the real thing and gagging in disgust was a statement of the great length these masters were ready to go to make art, a manifesto of extreme filmmaking. Forget Tom Cruise doing his own stunts for Mission Impossible or Mad Max: Fury Road‘s actors enduring more than 400 hours of footage in the heat of Namibia desert. Iñárritu’s movie is like a daring contest, a sort of resistance test for cast, crew and ultimately the spectator.
And it makes me think of what Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man famously said to a young Dustin Hoffman who, to better interpret the sleep deprived titular character, didn’t actually sleep for three days straight: “My dear boy, have you tried acting?”. It’s cinema: it doesn’t have to be real, just look real. That’s the magic of it.
The Revenant taps in the general admiration for graphic violence, technical achievements, extreme filmmaking and prolonged cinematic experiences like no other movie. To those assets, it adds an old fashioned guilty pleasure: it’s the joy, here taken to the ultimate level, of seeing your beloved Hollywood stars degraded, their beauty scarred, their otherwise dreamy body punished, their gorgeous face almost unrecognizable under unflattering rags and dirty hair and bruises. Honestly, who doesn’t love that? (The Academy, for one, seems to be a big fan).
I think if Glass were interpreted by a an equally gifted but unknown actor instead of Leonardo DiCaprio, the movie would have lost his voyeuristic appeal sooner and resulted simply unbearable.
We are now a mature audience, we can handle two and a half hours of artfully shot real torments on screen… as long as they’re suffered by someone so cool.