With everything but the still under-wraps “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” now having unspooled for Oscar voters this year, the season’s cards are pretty much on the table. In a month (Dec. 30), ballots will be in hand, and Academy members will start to decide on nominees. But Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” will be sending them to the polls with a violent pair of final salvos.
Violence and how it will be perceived by the Academy is frequently a topic of discussion this time of year. Many wondered in 2013 if the brutality of “12 Years a Slave” would push voters to the relative safety of “Gravity.” That didn’t happen (though some openly admitted to voting for Steve McQueen’s slavery drama on historical principle without having seen it). The year prior, Tarantino’s own slavery yarn, “Django Unchained,” walked away with two Academy Awards. Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men” (2007) was dark and gruesome, but the Cormac McCarthy adaptation took the top prize, as did, a year earlier, “The Departed,” which overcame its bloody genre conventions to become Martin Scorsese’s first best picture winner. “Gladiator,” “Braveheart,” “The Silence of the Lambs” — all violent, and all grabbed Oscar’s brass ring.
So to dismiss films like “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” on the grounds of brutality would, of course, be folly. But context is everything. For example, people might be more sensitive to material such as this in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris. That goes for box office as much as it does awards.
Is there cause for concern? “If I was directing ‘24: The Movie,’ yeah, I might be a little worried,” Tarantino told me recently. “But I don’t think there’s any correlation between my Agatha Christie Western and what’s going on in Paris with ISIS.”
While that’s true, with both “Hateful” and “Revenant” landing on Christmas Day, the dynamic will be interesting to observe, particularly as they dive into the blood bath in such distinctly different ways. The violence of “The Revenant” is realistic, depicting the horrors of mortal combat in nature. The film opens with a battle akin to “Saving Private Ryan’s” Normandy invasion sequence, only with arrows instead of bullets. The effects of a vicious bear mauling, captured in one riveting shot, are grotesque, and incapacitate the protagonist for much of the film’s 150-minute running time. Flesh is ripped, torn and haphazardly sewn throughout the picture.
The violence of “The Hateful Eight,” meanwhile, is stylized in genre fashion, as is Tarantino’s wont. Much of it comes in the final act, after the director has carefully turned the screws for nearly three hours (assisted greatly by Ennio Morricone’s ominous giallo-influenced score), which makes it all the more affecting. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is on the receiving end of enough battery to make cries of misogyny a safe bet. A head is quite literally blown off in (glorious 70mm) closeup.
And both films feature their own versions of emasculation. So there’s that.
Is all this a liability? Each film is more than the sum of its violent parts, so not necessarily. “The Revenant” will likely win Emmanuel Lubezki his third straight cinematography Oscar, and the film also could pick up a pair of sound awards, while Leonardo DiCaprio will be in the thick of the best actor debate for putting himself through the physical wringer. “The Hateful Eight,” meanwhile, could spark a cottage industry of high-end celluloid and large-format presentations that a number of filmmakers will no doubt adore.
Any way you look at it, an Oscar season that has seen journalist heroes, stranded astronauts, computer pioneers and a young girl’s cute little anthropomorphized emotions is about to go out with a crimson bang.