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Crisis, disaster and trauma, Violence and trauma

Dying a dozen deaths

Our editor Jon Sutton with a non-review of The Revenant.

28 January 2016

This piece is not a review of The Revenant. This bit is: Di Caprio dies a dozen deaths and is reborn each time to a new nightmare. The camerawork and sound is so intimate you can almost feel each rasping breath on your face. The landscape looks suitably awesome, all churning rivers, driving snow and imposing trees leaning into the centre of each frame. In fact, trees seem pretty significant. It's a decent film. 8/10.

But I wouldn't say it's 'enjoyable'. It's the kind of film where you may well hear people coming out of the cinema saying 'well, that's three-and-a-quarter hours of my life I won't be getting back'. (Incidentally, I think that's how time works in general, and I'm not sure why that particular critique is mostly reserved for films). I think there's a bit of a trend towards films like this. Before Christmas, I took my young boys to see the latest Pixar offering, The Good Dinosaur. We all came out feeling like we'd really been through the mill: never mind 'mild threat and peril', this was non-stop suffering and you'd struggle to even say it had a happy ending.

To be fair, that was a bit of a surprise, whereas I knew perfectly well that The Revenant would be hour upon hour of Di Caprio dragging his broken carcass through inhospitable landscapes. And still I went. Why?

I wonder whether there is a kind of cinematic 'Ikea effect' at play: the more work you put into something, the more you value it. This might even extend to understanding what on earth it is that the characters are saying: Bryan Singer deployed the 'deliberately unintelligible dialogue' tactic in The Usual Suspects, Christopher Nolan took the baton and ran, handing to one of his charges Tom Hardy – who seems to be making it his modus operandi – to mumble on in The Revenant. At least the plot is clear enough… I'm convinced another trend is for filmmakers (and writers for TV, come to that) to employ the 'Guru effect', leaving people so baffled by the disjointed goings-on that they feel the only explanation is they're in the presence of great intellect.

Maybe I'm overthinking it, and it's just the age-old artistic tradition of playing with extreme emotions in a safe environment. Di Caprio's character Hugh Glass embodies determination: 'as long as you can still grab a breath, you fight'. Perhaps we live in such a cosseted age, so removed from the wilds filling the screen here, that it's fun to imagine being forced to show such resilience. It is indeed a good game to spot the point in The Revenant at which you would just slump in a corner and quit… I think I lasted about seven minutes.

I'm aware that having a pop at The Revenant for being relentlessly bleak is like criticising Ant and Dec for lacking sufficient gravitas. But I remain intrigued by the notion that actors have to suffer for their art – Di Caprio got bashed about and cold, therefore he's a shoe-in for an Oscar – and that we have to share their pain by extension. Could psychologists shed light on this growing trend for 'extreme cinema'?  

I spoke to Mathias Clasen, Assistant Professor in the School of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University. He told me: 'It would be possible to identify salient cultural and geopolitical developments and posit a causal relationship between them and a supposed "hardening" of film, or the rise of films that assault audiences emotionally, but I'm not sure it'd be a valid causal relationship. But let's assume that particularly horrifying stuff is happening in the world at the moment (refugee crises, nuclear armament, socioeconomic inequality and civil unrest in some parts of the developed world, lurking pandemics, etc.) and let's also assume that there's a wave of films that are particularly grim. It seems fair to assume that those films then reflect those real-world developments, but it begs the question of why people, who find themselves in a grim world, would want to watch films that are grim. What's the psychological mechanism there, what need is being satisfied? I don't put much stock in the catharsis hypothesis (especially not re. horror films, which if anything sensitise people to danger – empirical research pouring out of media psychology has demonstrated as much). Horror/tragedy doesn't purge people of negative emotion. Is it about trying to learn coping mechanisms by confronting grimness in a decoupled fashion, i.e. within a fictional/simulated context? Possibly. But I don't think the evidence is in yet.'

Professor Stephen Joseph (University of Nottingham) added: 'The movie begins with Hugh Glass's struggle with the bear for physiological survival, then we see him seeking safety from the elements as he crawls into the warm carcass of his dead horse to protect himself from the harsh cold. Eventually his comrades ride out in search for him to escort him back to the fort. He finally belongs again, held in esteem for his perseverance and character. Grim stuff all right, but I was also reminded of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. As humans we are constantly striving to move forward. Perhaps in this way we find the story uplifting and inspiring despite its bleakness.'

Perhaps that is indeed the key. Despite one setback after another, it's a very linear journey: Glass moves on. And on. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

- Dr Jon Sutton is Managing Editor of The Psychologist.