February 2016

Arts & Letters

We are all savages

By Luke Davies

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

Survival tactics in ‘The Revenant’ and ‘The Big Short’

“Is there even a movie here, or is the film just the by-product of a particularly masochistic film crew spending some time in the woods?” This question, posed by American film blogger Devin Faraci, of Alejandro G Iñárritu’s The Revenant (in national release), is not entirely unfounded. The by-all-accounts gruelling shoot lasted nine months, including a long Canadian winter, and Iñárritu’s desire to shoot in the magic hour afforded him at times only a small window of available light. It went $40 million over budget too, topping out at $135 million. Its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, says it’s the hardest shoot he’s ever experienced. But for Faraci the film is akin to a prestige episode of Jackass: “You’re very aware that you’re watching a stunt show … watching The Revenant is like watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s Very Bad Vacation”.

If it’s Jackass, though, it also contains moments of majesty. DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, an early 19th-century fur trapper mauled by a bear and left for dead by fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who into the bargain has just killed Glass’ half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The actual narrative is episodic and minimalist; as survival-and-revenge tales go it doesn’t get simpler than this, nor can the stakes be clearer. Iñárritu seems to have had a higher purpose in hand, too, presenting Glass’ trauma as a transcendental wrestle in which pure pain achieves the quality of mysticism. Faraci, tongue-in-cheek, also called The RevenantThe Passion of the Christ of wilderness survival movies”. Primal suffering is front and centre here, as it was in Mel Gibson’s violent, strange 2004 film.

In The Revenant, Glass is a cipher more than a fully rounded character, a kind of blind everyman at the mercy of a more personal elemental force: sheer determination. For the film’s 156-minute running time, it’s the only pain medication he’s got.

While The Revenant may not be richly layered, it is at times exhilarating, a dazzling visual feast in which every frame feels like a painting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Iñárritu’s Birdman, Terrence Malick’s The New World) used very wide lenses for every shot, and only relied on available light. There are two dominant palettes: the ethereal blues and whites of sky and snow, and the moody greens of swamplands and rain-drenched mountains.

Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald is all villain – on occasion hammy, at other moments compelling and chillingly mad. In the end, he’s a little two-dimensional. For the most part it is Glass’ epic battle to survive, to come back “from the dead”, that holds us, far more than whatever shape his impending revenge might take. Still, Fitzgerald gets to deliver one bizarre and beautiful anecdote, about his father – delirious, hungry and lost in Texas – finding religion when he came across a squirrel in a thicket of trees.

Glass, Fitzgerald and others in the film were real 19th-century characters. (The film is based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name.) It’s said that Glass lived for a time with the Pawnee people; Iñárritu has added a Pawnee wife, son and backstory. Well, it is Hollywood, after all. Less successful is a B-story (with plot holes) about an Arikara warrior in search of his kidnapped daughter. Yet again, we must sigh that the only female character who doesn’t appear in flashback or hallucination is raped and brutalised as an incidental plot point, to demonstrate how staunch and solid our (white) hero is, saving damsels as well as his own life.

The film borrows liberally. From Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) we get the signature camera pan landing on a close-up of the villain who swivels counter-pan-wise into frame, as well as a shot of river rapids in hypnotic slow-motion that stretches on for 25 seconds. From Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975) there’s the kindly native trapper constructing a shelter for our sick hero in the middle of a raging snowstorm. Glass cuts open a freshly dead horse and entombs himself in the steaming carcass in order not to freeze to death; in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Han Solo slices open a dead snow-dwelling creature and shoves Luke Skywalker inside. (“This may smell bad, kid, but it’ll keep you warm until I get the shelter up.”) Elsewhere, a bird flies out of a chest wound, a striking image straight out of Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973). There’s even an overt nod to Caspar David Friedrich’s 1819 painting Cloister Cemetery in the Snow.

There’s a fair scattering of Malick-infused mysticism, à la The Tree of Life, too. Meteors streak across the sky. Avalanches rumble in the background. Villages are laid to waste and the ash storms are like poetry. Ryuchi Sakamoto and Alva Noto’s mournful score is an aural feast. But does all the transcendental striving become a kind of mystic kitsch? I watched the film several times, and continued to love the lushness of its traumas, even as I realised just how thin it is. On a frame-by-frame basis The Revenant is exquisite; that may not be enough reason to forgive its faults. But the bear-attack scene alone, the reputation of which precedes itself, is an astonishing feat of filmmaking, and worth the journey.

In its spatially epic construction and heightened aesthetic, The Revenant has an affinity with Andrew Dominik’s masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), surely the greatest western. Does The Revenant stack up? Not so well, in fact. It’s not philosophically and psychologically monumental, as Jesse James is. It doesn’t contain the profound sorrow of Dominik’s film – its death-haunted sense of sacrifice, and the way it locates the new mythology of celebrity, rising Phoenix-like out of American frontier mythology. The Revenant may be more simply experienced as the bastard love child of a John Wayne and a Terrence Malick film.

On est tous des sauvages (“We are all savages”), claims a sign strung around a Pawnee man hanged by drunken French trappers in The Revenant. Adam McKay’s The Big Short (in national release), a beautifully chaotic film about a mass delirium, tells the tale of the Wall Street savages who caused the 2008 global financial crisis, and of the handful of outsiders who saw it coming and, with mixed feelings, profited from it.

Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt are among these prophets in the desert, railing against the received wisdom. It’s 2005. Individual home mortgages are safe, because defaults are rare. So bundles of mortgages called subprime mortgage bonds – Wall Street likes bundles – are surely safe too. And now the banks are sliding into a culture of approving dubious mortgage applications because, hey, what could possibly go wrong?

Michael Burry (Bale), an eccentric, heavy-metal-loving fund manager in Florida, notices that the bundles are consistently being given Triple-A ratings by Wall Street ratings agencies. Simple mathematical modelling tells him the apocalypse is coming. He wants to short – bet against – the mortgage funds, because he’s sure they’re going to collapse. The bankers and fund managers he visits with his proposal laugh behind his back: the man’s a fool. Still, they’re happy to part him from his money. Jared Vennett (Gosling) hears about what Burry is doing, runs the numbers, and sees the frightening truth in his prophecies. Vennett convinces Mark Baum (Carell), a Wall Street hedge-fund manager whose misanthropy includes a blanket hatred of Wall Street, to investigate the claims. Baum’s workers visit sprawling housing tracts in Florida, where foreclosed houses sit with For Sale signs out front. “It’s like Chernobyl,” says one of them.

When Baum goes to Florida to see for himself, he meets some smiling young mortgage brokers who think they’re in the middle of a never-ending party, and are laughing about signing up poor prospects to multiple mortgages, which the banks then rubber stamp. “I don’t get it,” says Baum to his men. “Why are they confessing?” “They’re not confessing,” replies his colleague. “They’re bragging.”

Incredulous, Baum visits the Standard & Poor’s rating agency. There, analyst Georgia Hale (Melissa Leo, in a small but deliciously weird cameo) dodges and weaves around Baum’s question as to why Standard & Poor’s continues to give Triple-A ratings to bonds that are patently junk. (The shocking answer: they’re competing with the other ratings agencies, and can’t afford to lose the banks’ business.) “So anyone who has a boss can’t be held responsible for whatever shitty thing happens?” marvels Baum during the surreal conversation. “What are you, four?”

The film, based on Michael Lewis’ bestselling book, is filled with jargon (“I need to unload the positions on Freddy Mac so we can afford the premiums on the mortgage stops”). Yet it pulls off the improbable feat of making dynamic entertainment from dry and opaque subject matter. Having Adam McKay direct and co-write the screenplay was a masterstroke. More earnest versions of the screenplay had been floating around since the book’s 2010 release, but McKay – who co-wrote and directed Will Ferrell vehicles Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and The Other Guys – succeeded by treating this tragedy as a comedy.

Form meets function in depicting the frenetic unfolding of the catastrophe. The film is never still. It makes liberal use of superimposed graphs, charts, real news and archival footage. It breaks the fourth wall regularly. (Vennett, turning to camera as a scene plays out: “I would never hang out with these idiots … I had fashion friends.”) When the financial explanations become demanding, McKay uses real people in to-camera moments, to parse the machinations in plainer style. So Margot Robbie, in a bubble bath, explains subprime mortgages; Anthony Bourdain, in a restaurant kitchen, explains CDOs (collateralised debt obligations) via a metaphor of repurposing yesterday’s fish as tomorrow’s fish stew (“It’s not old fish – it’s a whole new thing!”); Selena Gomez and behavioural economist Richard Thaler, at a roulette table in Las Vegas, explain “synthetic” CDOs.

The Big Short has been referred to as a “feel-fury” (as opposed to feel-good) film. Many who created the financial disaster should have gone to prison. One single minor player did. The banks were rescued. The guilty were rewarded. Unlike Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a fundamentally empty film that invites us to celebrate narcissistic characters and their worlds of garrulous excess, The Big Short, at the heart of its own chaotic, comedic endeavours, is a compelling declamation of moral outrage.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

When the doctor needs a doctor

Medical professionals can be hypochondriacs too

The last of his kind

Stravinsky’s works, collected

Penny Wong

It’s time

The case for marriage equality

Spies like Oz

John Blaxland’s ‘The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963–1975’

More in Arts & Letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

More in Film

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Nick Cave performing with The Birthday Party at The Venue, London, 1981

The candles flicker and dim: ‘Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party’

Ian White’s documentary captures the incendiary trajectory of the seminal Melbourne band at the expense of the inertia that fuelled it

Michael Fassbender in ’The Killer’, sitting in a room cross-legged on a mat, wearing black gloves

Into the streaming void: ‘The Killer’ and ‘They Cloned Tyrone’

David Fincher’s stylish pulp and Juel Taylor’s SF-adjacent satire are the latest riches to be taken for granted in the ever-ready, abundant world of Netflix

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality