So whenever I wrote a review on The Revenant, an old high school friend of mine went and complained about how I didn’t like it on Facebook. While I would like to clarify that literally everything written on this site is subjective and what you enjoy as a movie is purely up to you, I highly suspect that this particular friend mainly liked it for the brutal violence and, furthermore, that he thinks I didn’t like it because of the brutal violence.
When it comes to The Revenant, I actually think the violence works. The contrast between the beautiful landscapes and the disturbingly graphic imagery of the violent scenes is something I quite like. But it is kind of true that I don’t particularly like graphically violent scenes. Maybe it’s because I’m such a testosterone-deficient beta-male type and I don’t really like violence in real life, a trait that did not serve me well in a surprisingly and depressingly large number of situations in my life.
But the main reason I don’t like it is because from a storytelling standpoint, it’s kind of lazy. You shock and startle with crazy images of blood splattering everywhere and wow you get rave reviews from dumb critics who praise you for being “so edgy,” but it’s all just a cover-up for a shitty story. And this applies to The Revenant in a way, so I guess technically from that standpoint Parker was right, I do kind of dislike it for the violent scenes, but this article is about violence and action scenes in movies so let’s get back to those.
I’m a minimalist storyteller. I subscribe to the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry school of “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” This is partially because it makes my life easier. Silent movies mean that you don’t have to convince somebody to come help you run sound, black-and-white means less futzing about with color correction.
As such, I can appreciate a graphically violent scene when it adds to the narrative in some way. This is so absurdly rare that I tend to associate graphic violence with bad movie right out of the theater, but I don’t write reviews right out of the theater.
This is my favorite scene in Pulp Fiction.
A lot of people think I’m disturbed for loving the scene so much, but it’s actually a great scene. It does the following:
1). It perpetuates story and theme from where we were before in the plot. Marcellus still has his passion for philosophy and is thinking about quitting. They’re taking Marvin to where they’re supposed to be, but Marcellus is planning on quitting.
2). It’s hilarious. The very idea that an enforcer would ask for the hostage’s input in a completely random conversation is pretty funny by itself, and Marvin’s totally not into this discussion either. Then John Travolta turns around, and you get just enough time in the closeup to notice that he’s still got his finger in the trigger guard. The resulting, eh, event, is sudden and outrageous enough as to make you laugh in spite of yourself.
3). It’s a plot twist. Of a sort. Seriously! Now the two of them have a completely unexpected problem on their hands that they have to deal with, and it introduces further complications to the plot; they have to clean out the car and then ditch it, and they have to do it before Jimmie’s wife gets home.
So here we have a graphically violent scene that adds to the overall narrative in a meaningful way. Even mildly plot-relevant violent scenes can still move the plot forward. And this is where we come back to The Revenant.
Violence in The Revenant just kind of… happens. And then, it keeps happening. And keeps happening. And keeps happening until you’re like “OK, I get it, what next?” Crucially, it doesn’t make itself interesting, snappy, or fun enough to hold my attention; in fact, it actively makes me want to look at things that aren’t as gross.
Contrast this to an excess of violence in a different film, Deadpool. Deadpool is ludicrously violent, but it has fun with it and kills off goons in insane, silly, fun ways. By contrast, The Revenant is so stuffy and realistic that everyone not only dies in brutal, realistic ways, but they’re also very gross and angsty while they do it. A lot of people from my high school don’t understand this, but violence is not very sexy in real life. Movies hire people called “fight choreographers” to block out action scenes in a way that’s more like a dance than like a fight.
Real fighting is a lot of bumping and grunting. Not very sexy. Usually. And real brutal violence usually smells pretty awful. Just because a movie is “edgy” enough to throw extensive violent scenes in your face doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. An action scene is just like any other scene, and should be judged by the narrative impact that it makes.
And if you skipped down to the comments just to call me a pussy, I want you to know that I helped deliver piglets via C-section last summer. Real blood flying in my face, real pig guts, and there was one stillborn one. If you never experience something that cute being straight dead out the womb, consider yourself lucky.