A man is stabbed through the hand. He screams. A few people gasp, a few more giggle, but most sit quietly and keep watching. As I sit with them in a crowded cinema in Munich watching this year’s Oscars juggernaut, The Revenant, I am struck by how little it all makes me feel.
Despite all its cruelty, I leave the cinema unfazed by what I had seen. After all, I had seen it all before.
Leaving aside its technical achievements, The Revenant says very little. It is exceptionally savage, though fails to make any real or lasting statement about that violence, a shallowness that disguises its horror and pointlessly trivialises the brutality that has and continues to destroy so many lives.
Now, it would be incorrect to simply argue that violent media turns people violent. A one-to-one, mimetic relationship between screen violence and that of the real world is overly simplistic. You’re just as likely to become violent when watching Transformers as you are to turn into an egg when reading Humpty Dumpty.
Rather, it would appear that the inverse is more correct. Screen violence – comfortably separated from the viewer by a movie screen and an oversized bucket of popcorn – feels intrinsically fake and the viewer cannot help but be physically and emotionally separated from it. When a truck explodes in Transformers, one does not feel the heat, the shock wave or the shrapnel, only the sense that something spectacular (in every sense of the word) is unfolding in front of you.
Herein lies the danger. If you were to ask someone leaving the cinema what an explosion was like, they would think they could tell you, though their assessment would be fundamentally wrong. The viewer has never felt the explosion but has been tricked into believing they have and as a result, they falsely believe that they can rationalise the horror of real explosions. News of bomb blasts in far-off places – again conveyed distantly through news broadcasts and online images – can be accommodated within a rationalised system of first-world comfort, safe in the knowledge that their choc top probably doesn’t contain gluten.
Not all screen violence needs to be regarded in such negative terms. To the contrary, if art – and cinema by extension – serves to reflect back and critique human nature and society, then violence must be portrayed in a way that can be examined, challenged and broken down.
Steve McQueen’s unflinching drama 12 Years A Slave is a confronting display of racism, misogyny and violence, yet does so in a way that forces the viewer to confront the monstrosity of the viewing itself. Much like The Revenant, it features achingly long takes, though is designed to make the audience feel uncomfortable where the latter seeks only to enthral.
The Revenant is not 12 Years A Slave. When you peel back the beautiful cinematography and frontier setting, you are confronted by a remarkable shallowness and commitment to disaffected bodily harm welcome in any of Michael Bay’s 180-minute specials of Robot Wars.
Scenes of extreme violence, frequently shot in technically stunning single takes, never pursue anything more than vague, pseudo-historical nihilism. Not once are the audience permitted time or breathing room to contemplate the monstrosity of its contents. They are instead drawn into an unrelenting, visceral sequence of increasing brutality, seemingly justified by the ferocity of the time or the desperation of its revenge-driven protagonists.
Yet, it is the flippancy with which this film engages with sexual violence that remains truly inexcusable. The film’s sole female character, a Native American woman, is dragged through the wilderness by a band of barbarian Frenchmen and remains silent throughout the film with the exception of a rattle of psuedo-pornographic squeals. She serves no purpose beyond providing motivation for an all-male hunting party of her family trying to track her down.
Her lack of character agency is reflected in a pointless, albeit brief, rape sequence which, like the notorious scene from the last season of Game of Thrones, serves little purpose beyond vaguely stating something about the brutality of human existence and the barbarity of the time.
For the distance those respective periods provide however, the same distant rationalisation takes place as in a Transformers explosion, anaesthetised by female silence and quick cuts to the “real action” centred exclusively on men. As a result, the concept of rape becomes distant yet familiar, allowing the majority of the audience to falsely believe that they understand the brutality and therefore, on some level, justify or excuse it.
Violence should be horrifying.