A frontiersman is impaled through the head by an arrow. A bear rips the flesh off Leonardo DiCaprio’s back. And then DiCaprio dives off a cliff on a horse, eviscerates the dead beast and scoops out the guts so that he can take shelter in its carcass.
Think these scenes from Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant (about a 19th?century frontiersman who endures appalling conditions as he tracks down the fellow who has betrayed him) might be a bit much for the faint of heart? The Fox and Regency film isn’t alone in stretching voters’ appetite for gore. In Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a bullet blasts a man’s head to pieces, while a woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gets slapped around so much that it isn’t quite clear if all her teeth remain.
These two major movies will attempt to out-do each other in the brutality stakes this awards season — and just how willing Oscar voters are to tolerate their extremes may go a long way toward determining whether they emerge as frontrunners in this year’s extraordinarily heated competition.
So far, Revenant is drawing more chatter. A pre-Thanksgiving Academy screening led to a few walkouts and a number of moans and groans, even as many audience members were awed by the film’s scope and ambition. No scene shocked and awed the audience as much as the one where DiCaprio stumbles across a bear and its cubs, and then is ferociously (and repeatedly) assaulted by the beast, which spins, turns and eventually sits on him, after throwing him around and ripping great scads of flesh from his back. The sequence is a monument to CGI, and also perhaps to (some) viewers’ willingness to endure the unendurable. One otherwise admiring pundit was slammed on social media for tweeting, “Forget women seeing this.” But the?attention?Revenant is getting may be simply because more people have seen it than The Hateful Eight, which The Weinstein Co. is just starting to screen.
“The older members of the Academy will accept a certain amount of violence if the balance of the film pleases them,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. “But if, as they leave the theater, the lingering thought is how violent it was, that can be a detriment.”
Historically, Academy voters have embraced several ultra-violent pictures, but there seems to be a limit. In 1971, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs provoked an outcry because of a prolonged rape scene and a climactic sequence in which Dustin Hoffman goes on a murderous rampage. At the time, Peckinpah had to eliminate some of his picture’s more graphic moments to earn an R rating. Even then, what was left proved too much for the Academy, which granted it just one nomination, for best dramatic score (Jerry Fielding).
Nor did Peckinpah’s earlier The Wild Bunch (1969), widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, fare much better. The movie, which turned the violence of firearms and death into a cinematic ballet, received only two nominations: for adapted screenplay and, again, Fielding’s music. (Intriguingly, the same year, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, a more light-hearted treatment of the same historical characters, earned seven noms and won four statuettes.)
Other violent movies have performed less well than critical esteem might indicate — from Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), with two acting nominations but none for best picture, to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), which pulled in four noms but no wins. The latter’s violence led to an outcry and demands for censorship in England — along with reported death threats to Kubrick, leading him and Warner Bros. to withdraw the film from circulation in the U.K. for 27 years.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), a massive box-office hit that divided critics, earned three nominations, all below-the-line. His earlier picture Braveheart (1995), whose highlights included a graphic disembowelment sequence, did win best picture, but only after some of the more exceptional violence was excised following screenings in which several people reportedly threw up.
Braveheart benefited from belonging to the one genre where Oscar voters have turned a blind eye to the brutal: war movies. Indeed, the statuette for best picture and/or director often has rewarded a film that recognizes war in all its horror — from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to The Deer Hunter (1978) to Platoon (1986) to Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Neither Hateful Eight nor Revenant is a war movie, but both might take solace in a recent exception to the Academy’s no-violence rule: Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men (2008), which beat Atonement, Juno and Michael Clayton (along with another violent opus, There Will Be Blood) to win the Oscar for best picture.
No Country might just signal that, if a movie is good enough, the Academy will overlook its gruesome moments. And a recent infusion of fresh blood (no pun intended) in the organization’s membership could make that more likely. Still, notes Maltin, “It’s too soon to know whether they can sway the outcome.”