Violent Scenes Suck (Except When They Don’t)

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.


The Revenant: DiCaprio’s Oscar Batman Gambit

It is well-documented how much Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t have an Oscar.

Personally, I think that this is all just a big running joke for the people of the Academy, who nominate him and then giggle because they don’t plan to give it to him. Ever. But it’s started to affect his psyche, to the point where maybe he’s not making the best judgement calls on what movies to do. He saw that Iñárritu was doing a movie and was like “let me in on that shit” and then was subjected to straight-up goddamn torture.

I think true auteurism is a fantasy. This is because of the nature of filmmaking. Unlike animation and even video game development, filmmaking suffers the distinct disadvantage of “you always need someone to help.” The more ambition you have, the more help you’re going to need. With a game or an animation, you can technically do it all, you’re just going to be grinding through it over a long period of time. Not so with film. At the very least, you’re going to need one other person to be the other character, unless you’re making some really artsy, trippy, pretentious shit.

Iñárritu, meanwhile, has, like Tarantino, achieved enough success that he seems to be deluded into thinking that he’s the only important person on set and, furthermore, that every idea he comes up with is brilliant. And because of this early success, studios bank on him and crews don’t question him. It’s the most dangerous sort of yes-manning there is. It’s what allowed Phantom Menace to happen.

The most succinct term I can come up with to describe this film is “indulgent.” So much of the stuff in this movie seems like it’s there just so it can be there. The bear mauling scene is noticeably excessive and the majority of it does literally nothing for the plot. The film as a whole is like the Quaaludes scene from The Wolf of Wall Street, except extended into a whole movie. And with bears.

This movie is pretty, sure, but prettiness alone does not a good film make. Personally, I think this gamble by DiCaprio was a failed one, because he got the most boring character in the film. Sure, he did insane shit, and that in itself kind of proves that yes, this man is indeed so desperate for an Oscar that he will pull a literal Luke Skywalker and sleep inside a goddamn animal carcass.

But Leo’s character is Batman. No character flaws or personal weakness. Just sheer determination to get a thing, and get it he does, but does he go through any sort of growth? Not really. There’s not much to it, so there’s only so much acting Leo can do. People were shocked when Tom Hardy got a nomination for this movie but I wasn’t after watching it, because he straight-up pulled a Heath Ledger Dark Knight Joker villain character and it was really good. Wow, everything seems to be coming back to Batman here.

Maybe it’s because I played Undertale before watching this movie, but I found the plot very ugly. It’s not so much the violence, but that the violence is treated as a solution to the character’s problems. But OK, let’s set that aside and treat all that as a mere plot device. Let’s pretend that the “revenge doesn’t solve anything” point ISN’T brought up (SPOILER: it totally is). There’s still no real arc for this character here. He starts out seeking revenge and in the end he gets it and never reaches the abyss or revelation. He spends the whole story being grimly determined and never has a moment of introspection. It’s uninteresting, boring, Point A to Point B.

Much like The Hateful Eight, this film is one that uses its brilliant cinematography as a crutch for its less-than-stellar writing. In fact, I just thought of a better metaphor. The cinematography and Tom Hardy’s performance are the motorized scooter in the grocery store, except the guy isn’t disabled, he’s just fat. And not because of hormones either, this guy is the guy that frat bros and jocks use as the strawman for fat people, the guy who’s fat because he doesn’t exercise and eats nothing but greasy, unhealthy foods. And that fat guy is this film. It’s made more for the creator’s self-gratification than for anyone else. I would not be surprised to find out that Iñárritu, when particularly stressed by silly, insignificant things like production schedules and sane ADs telling him he can’t leave actors in the freezing river until the light is just right, goes home and has a nice 186-minute wank over this movie.

Don’t get me wrong, The Revenant isn’t particularly bad. It’s just not particularly good either. Have a good reason to watch this, because it really is a slog. It takes twice the time it needs to to tell a story, and that is ultimately its biggest failing.

But then again, the Oscars have never really been about what films are really the best films, so maybe they’ll take pity on DiCaprio this year and reward his dedication. At this point, it’s like they’re a frat hazing him and watching him do dumb shit because they know he’ll do it because he really wants to be in their big boys’ club.

Good luck, Leo.