Cinéma vérité: "The Revenant" and "Spotlight" — two tales for our time and beyond

Two films in contention for best picture that delved deep into the American soul

Published January 10, 2016 8:30PM (EST)

Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant"   (Twentieth Century Fox)
Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant" (Twentieth Century Fox)

(Note: This article contains spoilers for both films.)

By now, you've either seen or heard about "The Revenant" (furry Leonardo DiCaprio mauled by a bear in the 1820s) and "Spotlight" (Boston Globe investigative journalism).  The two movies, starkly different in their art, method and budgets, also happen to be neck and neck for the best picture Oscar, two disparate takes vying to be the award-winning explication of the American soul.

 "The Revenant" is based on the story of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who, while on a fur trapping expedition in the 1820s in the upper Missouri, was mauled by a grizzly and left so gravely injured that Bridger and Fitzgerald, the two men tasked to stay behind with him, spooked by the very real possibility of an Indian attack, leave Glass for dead to try to catch up with their hunting party. Glass not only survives, he crawls, first on his elbows and knees, then begins to walk the 60, possibly 80 miles (it becomes 200, in some of the possibly tall-telling; "The Revenant's" director, González Iñárritu, told Grantland 300 miles) back to Fort Kiowa, where he catches up to his abandoners.

Fertile material, an award-winning director ("Birdman," "Amores Perros"), a big star, Leonardo DiCaprio, who by the way has come close but never won a best actor Oscar.

The movie literally starts with a bang, with Hugh Glass about to shoot an elk, while over at the camp, an Indian raid ensues. The first 20 minutes are spectacular: sweeping shots of gorgeous scenery, the balletic chaos of the Indian attack, the survivors managing to clamber onto their boat (a few stacks of precious furs in hand) and make a temporary getaway. The crowd shots of the quotidian fur trade--the trapping and killing of the animals, the large-scale prep of the hides and turning them into commodities--were visually fascinating.

The Indian attack is something of a mystery. At this point in the movie, no bear, you don't really understand what was going on or who anyone is; the mayhem is certainly eye-catching but goes on for a long time, seeming less purposeful to the story and more of an a-ha! Look what I can do! — arrow through the throat, hatchet to the head, bullet exploding in the flesh, near drowning — from the director. I'd been warned the movie is two-and-a-half hours, so I settled in.

But the bear attack was when I started feeling pandered to. In the generally accepted telling of the Glass story, he comes across a mother grizzly with her cubs and is attacked as he is climbing a tree to get away. His friends, alerted by his horrific screams, come and kill the bear, but Hugh Glass is already missing a few pieces of himself, which the bear has chewed and swallowed. In the movie, the CGI snarling grizzly goes for it not once, but three times, a drawn-out gore sequence so full of guttural cries and spurts one can truly label it a kind of porn (the Internet speculated that Leo/Hugh was actually raped by the bear in that scene).

This Hugh Glass, he of the stereotypical western, is a manly man. Even though torn to ribbons, he manages to kill the bear, his compadres find them both tumbled down a ravine, only the man living.

The rest of the movie is a sequence of hardships, maybe metaphorical of the hardships an actor has to go through to get an Oscar. There's a sameness to all the "tests," which causes a leaking of all tension and mystery because we know Hugh Glass/Leonardo is going to nail it; because he's a manly man, he will will his way through. Leaky trachea from a bear bite? He'll self-cauterize it with gunpowder! Blizzard? He'll disembowel his horse and use it as a kind of frontier pod hotel. There's relatively little dialogue (the manly man is the strong, silent type), in fact, DiCaprio seems to emote mostly through the thrust of his bottom teeth, which, by the end of the movie, you will have memorized better than his dentist.

He also falls off several cliffs, which makes me wonder where the heck in the Great Plains do they have such high mountains. They don't.

When he finally makes it back to the fort, one hopes at last something will happen. However, Iñárritu has jimmied in a ham-handed subplot: Hugh Glass had a beautiful Pawnee wife (unlikely, in real life) who was killed by evil white soldiers. But while Hugh lay injured, his biracial son is murdered by the dastardly Fitzgerald — right in front of poor Hugh Glass! A ham in each hand, the director pummels the viewer.

With the plot so loaded like this, Hugh Glass must exact his vengeance and kill Fitzgerald, but not too quickly, as, according to my mental westerns template, we need cinematic release via  another gore sequence. He will also at some point need to lose his gun so he'll be reduced to hand-to-hand combat (reprising his struggle with the bear). Then the one guy on top, then the positions  reversed, then reversed again. Another near drowning, too. In the melee Leo/Hugh manages to chop off a bunch of Fitzgerald's fingers with an ax, more spurts. Let me leave the last part unspoiled. But CATHARSIS SHOULD HAPPEN HERE.

A few movie reviewers, perhaps puffed up a bit on testosterone, which must increase in some men when they watch violent movies, have declared that women won't be able to watch the movie. E.g., blogger Jeffrey Wells on Twitter:

I am a woman, and I did have problems watching it, mostly because I was so bored. Not bored by Leo/Hugh falling off a cliff or the myriad Indian attacks, but bored by waiting for some small bit of character development to show up. Instead, the movie is a 2.5-hour linear progression of violence-beautiful scenery-more violence-beautiful scenery-Leo doing something tough-scenery-Leo doing something gross but necessary-scenery-Leo dreaming of his floaty ghosty Indian wife-beautiful scenery-crowd shot of the fort. "Takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'" is a great concept for a commercial, but definitely hard to watch over two and a half hours.

Speaking of women, besides Glass' beautiful dead wife, the only woman who gets individual screen time is an Arikara Indian woman — being raped (guess who saves her). The other scene where women appear at all is at the fort, the men are carousing with what look like Indian prostitutes, but which a historian of this time period tells me would have been extremely unlikely as the commodification of Indian women for sex was not yet a glimmer in the white men's eyes. In fact, says Karl Jacoby, a professor of the American West at Columbia University, Indian women played an integral role as intermediaries between the Indian and trapper communities during this time period. Iñárritu hints at this, beguilingly, at the beginning, with the scenes of the women cleaning skins, but that theme quickly disappears.

If I'm sounding harsh on the movie, it's because it practically audibly demands that we receive it as Art; if we don't we're pussies. But art isn't something you can purchase via expensive effects and a P.R. firm (in "The Revenant's" case, multiple P.R. firms). The Wrap has reported that the studio has hired “'every awards consultant known to man' to strategize an Oscar campaign." The range of the clanking Oscar publicity machine was so large that even I got caught up in it when some influencers I knew were invited for private screenings and invited me along.

Not surprisingly, then, the information from the press releases replicates like mutant bacteria in the media. Lately, all I've been reading about was how Leonardo DiCaprio, longtime vegan, suffered so much by eating raw bison liver for his art:

"Ate raw bison liver" (E Online); "Leonardo DiCaprio Explains Why He Ate Actual Raw Bison Liver" (Vanity Fair); Leonardo DiCaprio Ate Raw Bison Liver for His New Movie (ABCNews); "Leonardo DiCaprio reveals he ate raw bison liver" (People). "He even ate a raw bison liver" (Washington Post). Leonardo DiCaprio insisted on eating actual raw bison liver" (Business Insider). "Bison tartare" (New York Times).

Art has to move us. "The Revenant" shocks but it doesn't move. Its version of Hugh Glass traverses 60-80-200+ miles, but his heart (and ours) stays smack where it started. The idea of Hugh Glass as a multicultural, modern man with a biracial son feels unearned, if not a little bunk (the two actors also evince little connection on-screen); it's as if the director didn't trust that just the story of a guy getting mauled by a bear and then crawling back on his elbows wasn't going to be enough to hold our attention. 

It's almost as if the movie had been created by someone hell-bent on reverse-engineering an Oscar vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio. He's front and center in almost every frame, yet with little connection to anyone around him (again, the relationship with his son, simultaneously overwrought and unconvincing); if there's any theme, I think it's actually about machismo and American isolation. This kind of self-reliance taken to its extreme spills over not into frontier heroism but into selfishness, a weirdo sociopathy. And in this I do think that Iñárritu has said something about the American psyche.

"Spotlight" also takes on a horrific subject: widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. It's in some ways a more horrifying story of betrayal and death, including spiritual death, but director Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent," "The Visitor") makes his movie "The Revenant's" opposite in its quiet tone and restrained acting.

Spotlight is the name of the four-person investigative team at the Boston Globe who eventually uncover the story. The movie also starts in medias res, in a police station, people bustling about, half-formed glimpses, some intriguing dialogue for which we have no context. In Iñárritu's film, this would be the Indian attack scene, only here, it lasts but an impressionistic few minutes. For my writing students, I often talk about how writing fiction is all about "information control." And in this opening scene, just enough information is doled out that we get hooked: we want to know more, need to know more. Instead of being beaten over the head with a ham in each fist, we creep forward, enter the story, feeling, somehow, if we watch closely, listen, think, then all will be revealed.

The 200-mile journey on the elbows equivalent for the Spotlight team is trying to uncover a story — or even determine if one is there — that involves Boston's most powerful and opaque organization, one not even held to normal legal standards. The reporters go forth and interview, research, attempt to sue the church, watch, listen. They make mistakes and missteps but continue chipping away, collecting a lot of dots that they try to connect. In the meantime, we are reminded this is the newspaper business, that there are other papers that could get ahold of these same materials and wreck a year's worth of reporting.

The movie itself embodies the idea of process and how to tell a story. The actors each adroitly portray their character, they come off as eminently real people, and therein lies the tension: Will the reporters fail? Will the cranky lawyer become an ally? Is the leader of a survivors’ group legitimate? And the age-old question: If this is such a big story, why doesn't anyone know about it?

I've never seen a movie that so effectively makes doing research seem exciting. The glancing use of a countdown on a computer screen made me feel, viscerally, the pressure and the effort that it takes to not only do all the research, but then to write the story on deadline. So were scenes of microfilm, of calling a court docket out of storage, inputting data into a Lotus spreadsheet — McCarthy makes these things tense, and thrilling. Closer to the end, a stereotypical shot of printing presses running, because of all the story that proceeded it, wasn't trite, it made me teary. "Spotlight" succeeds because it shows the true story of what committed people can do when they work together. It was played straight the entire time, no upsetting flashbacks; we imagine the suicides rather than see them. The storytelling, in fact, is so spare that we see very little of the reporters' own lives. We learn the Spotlight editor has a spouse in this exchange:

"You here with Barbara?"  

"No.  She hates these things."

We know (also from the dialogue) that reporter Mark Rezendes is married, but we also never see his wife; we understand his financial situation from his furnishings, his junky car, his gratitude for secondhand pizza. And yet, because of the masterful acting, the telling gesture, the dialogue that uses every word to forward the story, we feel we know these characters, without having the extended gauzy flashbacks and the magical realism of "The Revenant": He loves his son! He loves his wife! He is a worthwhile protagonist!

Another contrast between the two movies is that "The Revenant" started with a large budget that just became more bloated (to $165 million) as time went on. Iñárritu is a big fan of natural settings, but because there was no snow in globally warm Calgary, he decided to take the filming  via a carbon-heavy move all the way to Argentina, $10 million for a six-day shoot.

"Spotlight," in comparison, had a laughable $15 million budget, which made even Boston (forget Patagonia) too expensive. The director took it to Toronto, where tax breaks made it much cheaper to shoot. Spotlight's offices were re-created in an abandoned Sears warehouse using old office cubicles lifted off Toronto's hometown paper, the Globe and Mail, for $5,000. An insider in the film told me that directors, writers, and actors all worked for well under quote. 

I wouldn't go so far as to say "The Revenant" is Trump and "Spotlight" is Bernie Sanders, but there are elements of the very rich person who demands attention versus the grass-rootsy, scrappy one who invites it. Where "The Revenant" turns up the volume, "Spotlight" whispers so you have to sit forward and listen more attentively. Iñárritu almost glories in the idea of making an over-long, unwatchable (or difficult to, especially for the humans who identify as female) movie, while the actor Rachel McAdams makes a decision not to replicate reporter Sacha Pfeiffer's rat-tat-tat speaking style out of consideration for the audience, who might find it hard to follow. 

In real life, the Spotlight reporters all grew up Catholic, and how they navigate the permeable membrane of their life and work becomes part of the suspense. Spotlight's editor attended a Catholic high school that, life imitating art,  symbolically sits across the street from the Globe's offices. In him, we see the entanglements of his upbringing, his education, his community and how, ultimately, he has to decide whether to disrupt some of these relationships  in order to get his story. A scene where he visits an old friend at his house in a Boston suburb was more tension-filled and heart-pounding for me than watching Hugh Glass being mauled by a CGI bear.

These reporters aren't heroes, and that's a good thing. This is a story about heroism, about the times when people step up: the reporters, the lawyers, the ex-priest who left the church and dedicated his life to studying priest abuse, as well as the semi-shady lawyer who had, years earlier, gone out on a limb to send the Globe a list of abusive priests years earlier. And more than any of them, it's the survivors who break our hearts as we watch them overcome their terror and shame to get the story out so that others might be saved. The movie lets you see the terrible cost of what's been lost and yet what also remains. When the angry-eyed man with the 1-year-old baby finally allows the reporter to use his name in the press, you feel so much elation — and sadness and horror and fear for his future at the same time. This, to me, is visceral storytelling at its finest, where the writing, the acting, the camerawork, the music and all the myriad details work in synchronistic concert.

"Spotlight" is clearly the superior movie; there's my Oscar vote. But both are useful for examining just what entertains us and what we are entertained by. "Spotlight" isn't a PBS documentary; one of its goals is to sell tickets and make money.

And yet, I believe I received more than entertainment from it; I feel like I have acquired an almost salutary knowledge of how hard journalists work (spending a year or more on a story was not unusual for "Spotlight"), the importance of investigative journalism and how such efforts need to be supported financially.

Iñárritu's artistic vision revisits the well-trod genre western, its mythology, much of it a fiction of tall tales and manly men created for consumption by the rubes out East. The Hugh Glass story has been revisited by authors every generation. Perhaps the next one will want to explore what actually happened when Hugh Glass successfully made it to Fort Kiowa. I spoke to professor Jon Coleman, who wrote what many regard as the definitive book on Hugh Glass, "Here Lies Hugh Glass." Professor Coleman said that Glass did catch up to the young Bridger and Fitzgerald at the fort, and he really gave it to them: a stern talking-to about wilderness ethics. And then--real life delightfully subverting just about every trope of the shoot-em-up western, he forgave them.

By Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Marie Myung-Ok Lee teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her next novel, "The Evening Hero," is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. Find her on Twitter  @MarieMyungOkLee and on Facebook.

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Academy Awards Leonardo Dicaprio Oscars Spotlight The Revenant