February 2016

Arts & Letters

We are all savages

By Luke Davies
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). 

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

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