The Revenant (2)

the-revenant-leonardo-dicaprio-tom-hardy-ftrToday we conclude our review of the 2008 Black List draft of the upcoming Inarritu film. You can find a link to this version of the script here.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

Objectively, these first ten are little more than okay. If one dissociates from expectations about what the scenes might look like when filmed, they aren’t overtly impressive.

As described in the dialogue question, the script opens with a lot of exposition about the personalities [and group tensions] of our characters. There are also lengthy blocks of exposition designed to set the 1820’s wilderness mood. Lastly, we are given to understand that Glass is something of a superhero Frontiersman. None of this is written in language that interests a reader as a thing-in-itself. The writing is adequate, but not memorable.

Halfway through the first ten, the Ree [local Native-American population] enter the story, inciting a [nearly] five page battle scene which will have undeniable gravity when filmed. [As Joel Dorland pointed out in the comments to the first part of this review, the trailer demonstrates the images have impact.] However, it would be improper to give the script writer credit for director choices—in the same way it is improper to give directors credit for screenwriting choices. And the fact is, the battle, as described in the script, is nothing extraordinary. I don’t think it would be fair to other authors to say I would have NECESSARILY kept reading beyond page 10… if this weren’t an Inarritu film, already completing its production. The first ten are interesting as an entity separate from the production of the film, but only nominally so:

14 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) As has become apparent, I had issues with this script. The moment these issues show up brightest is in this discussion of reveals. The Revenant JUST ends. It’s as though the screenwriter [and I’m sure the novelist responsible for the source material] had no idea how to give catharsis so they just tacked the following on to give the illusion of completion [and if you don’t like spoilers, skip to the next part of this question]:

GLASS
I am Tatanka Wicasa! I have killed
whites and I have killed Arikara
and I have killed grizzly! AND I
WILL KILL YOU!

Elk’s Tongue doesn’t move… just stares back at Glass…
soaked in blood and water. Then Glass CRIES OUT at the
warriors again.

GLASS (cont’d)
COME ON!
But the Arikara don’t attack… don’t move at all… until
Elk’s Tongue gives Glass the SLIGHTEST OF NODS, then turns…
they disappear back into the trees.

Glass watches them fade away, then collapses to his knees on
the icy river… exhausted in every possible way.

He begins to cry.

This denouement comes after Glass kills Fitzgerald and, in so doing, completes the mission statement given to us before page one by Samuel Johnson [We will talk a great deal more about this mission statement in Part D.]:

Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice.

This story has the classic form of Person A is wronged by Person B. Person A must overcome insurmountable odds to make Person B pay for the wrong inflicted on Person A. It’s a primordial story. Everyone in the audience can identify with Glass’ journey. [We’ve all been wronged, and we’ve all fantasized about righting that wrong.] So, how come the author feels he has to go one reveal further by having Elk’s Tongue validate Glass’ quest to kill Fitzgerald?

I believe we get the Elk’s Tongue reveal because there is no thematic payoff when Glass kills Fitzgerald. In that moment, Glass has done no more than he set out to do. Sure, he overcame insurmountable odds to do it, but the world isn’t yet different. He’s still THE EXACT SAME HUGH GLASS when Fitzgerald dies that he was before he threw Fitzgerald under the ice. The author adds the Elk’s Tongue reveal because, without it, the story has no weight. I’ll argue in a minute that, even with the Elk’s Tongue reveal, the story has no weight.

4 out of 10 points.

Part B) The engine that drives Glass is his desire to be treated as the intelligent, competent, leader that he naturally is. He displays all these attributes, and the people in his sphere understand that he has all these attributes, but they will not treat him with the respect his attributes deserve—because he is African-American.

You can see how the Elk’s Tongue final reveal discussed in the previous section lends surface completeness to this engine. There is symmetry in the lack of respect Elk’s Tongue accords all non-Ree’s [including Glass] and the lack of respect with which the men [especially Fitzgerald] in Glass’ world treat Glass. By having Elk’s Tongue end up viewing Glass as worthy regardless of his racial classification, that racial classification is made irrelevant. Glass’ engine has been satisfied. He has finally gotten “the world” to treat him with the respect his attributes deserve. In this sense, the engine is proper and fully functioning. The fact that I feel the Elk’s Tongue reveal is papier-mache does not destroy the fact that the protagonist’s engine his brought him to a resolution of his story aims.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) I define the pinch point as arriving on page 73:

SPOTTED HORSE
You spend your life hunting enemy.
Enemy wins.

GLASS
It will be over soon.

rev 6In this exchange Spotted Horse is inviting Glass to come live in peace among the Sioux. Glass declines. To me, this is extremely muddied work on the part of the writer. Why is the respect offered by Spotted Horse insufficient? How is it that Elk’s Tongue is the only one whose validation our author will allow Glass to accept? I don’t believe the novelist responsible for the source material [nor the screenwriter who gave us this adaptation] really thought through the consequences of this scene. If they had they would have seen the only difference between the respect of Elk’s Tongue, and the respect of Spotted Horse, is in the amount of suffering required to earn it.

I don’t think either author realized that is the ONLY difference. Had they realized it, The Revenant would open with a quote about suffering bringing us closer to divinity—something from Dostoyevsky would do.

3 out of 5 points.

Part D) The theme of this script is inextricably linked to its opening quote from Samuel Johnson:

Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice.

When you first read that, you think it’s pretty easy to understand. Without meaning to be difficult, I am forced to suggest it’s actually almost opaque. Fully meaning to be ironic, I will consult a dictionary for guidance.

Revenge- the action of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands.

Vengeance- punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong.

Obviously, in modern common usage, there is no distinction between passion and justice. I suppose it’s possible the words have evolved during the intervening centuries, but I doubt that hypothesis. It seems more likely that Johnson is drawing a connection between intentions and outcomes. In other words, if it turns out that the person looking to right a wrong did so from anger, then they will have achieved revenge. If it turns out that the person looking to right a wrong did so from equanimity, then they will have achieved vengeance—they will have achieved justice.

So, had Elk’s Tongue shown Glass the respect he deserved at the end of his story because he realized that Glass had been aiming at Justice when he killed Fitzgerald, this would have been one of the most impressive scripts I’ve ever read. I believe that both our novelist and our adapter intuited this fact about Elk’s Tongue, and that’s the reason he figures so prominently in this story. At the same time, however, I do not believe they designed their story this way on purpose. The ending with Elk’s Tongue has phonetic thematic completeness, but it doesn’t have any weight because it feels like an accident.

As proof I offer Glass’ treatment of Bridger. From pages 84-85:

The rest of the bunkhouse watches this execution in wideeyed,
stone silence, afraid to move.

GLASS
There wasn’t no ‘Ree that night,
was there?

A long beat, then…

BRIDGER
No.

Glass PISTOL WHIPS BRIDGER, knocking him to the floor. And
before Bridger can crawl away, Glass in over him… those
aching, frozen fists beating mercilessly down on Bridger.

And Bridger doesn’t fight back… just does his best to cover
up, but the blows keep coming, and Bridger’s face is covered
in blood…

…just as Henry runs inside, half-dressed from where Stubby
Bill awoke him. Henry grabs Glass… pulls him off.
Glass spins… jams his pistol right in Henry’s face.

HENRY
Hugh. Wait.

Glass is crazy with rage… barely stops himself from pulling
that trigger. But finally, he calms… his arm sinks,
lowering his aim. He glances around the bunkhouse.

“Glass is CRAZY WITH RAGE” as he pistol whips Bridger. This isn’t an act born from Justice; manifestly, it is born from passion. Even had the emotional cues in Glass’ actions been absent, this would still be an act of passion. Bridger has spent the entire script running from his own cowardice under pressure. We’ve known this about him since page 9:

BRIDGER
Thank you… for what you done back
there.

GLASS
You’d have done the same for me.

Bridger nods… he hopes so.

Bridger is a coward and knows it. Cowardice just might be a moral evil, but the sum of Bridger is not. Pistol whipping a boy because he did not have the internal moral compass to stand up to the whims of a sociopath is, in no possible world, an act of justice.

As additional proof, I submit Glass’ ending confrontation with Elk’s Tongue from page 103:

Glass and Elk’s Tongue exchange a long stare, until finally
Glass SCREAMS OUT.

GLASS
I am Tatanka Wicasa! I have killed
whites and I have killed Arikara
and I have killed grizzly! AND I
WILL KILL YOU!

Notice all the capital letters and exclamation points. It is more than evident that the author means to imply that Glass is in a state of passion. Justice is, above all things [and according to our opening quote], calm. It does not SCREAM, and it does not make threats. If the source material has been modified by the screenwriter, then shame on that screenwriter. You can’t open a script by asking the reader to understand a subtle difference between wrongs righted from passion and those righted from equanimity… and then close your script by completely disregarding your own proposed difference.

I will give the author more credit than he probably deserves for getting very close to doing something interesting:

7 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) I believe the story is unique in how close it came to being impressive. I actually think The Revenant stands as a major proof of my ideas about theme. Had the original author [or the adapter] spent a little more time with his story beats, he might have constructed something that would outlast himself—a “so long lives this” kind of thing. Unfortunately, for the audience, the authors did not finish solving their story. They were content with the drafts that almost worked. You can see how spectacular this eventual failure was in how hollow the final reveal with Elk’s Tongue feels. After everything Glass went through, his climax isn’t a bang. It’s barely a whimper:

4 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing is adequate. I would never ask for additional work from this author based on the quality of the writing presented. I might ask what other stories he had on his hard drive. Maybe.

3 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

I feel like the original author [and the adapter] have opened themselves up to a massive criticism by linking their African-American protagonist to a revenge story which centers on that character’s inability to be treated as a human equal in his humanity. Western Civilization deserves to be castigated for this fault—that is as certain as 2+2=4. But, our culture has been gifted with a number of African-American Moral Philosophers who have shown us that the proper way to resist inequality is always non-violent. Oppression can never be ended by aggression. True moral heroes transcend the culture which surrounds them by demonstrating the fallacy of oppression. Namely:

You cannot be a Just society unless all humans are treated as equal in their humanity.

Glass does not demonstrate this truth. In fact, he arrives at equality by threatening to kill the last human he comes into contact with in his story. It is self-evident that if your “equality” has been gained by holding others at gunpoint, then you haven’t really gained equality at all. You are just another in a long line of oppressors. You may have power, but you do not have respect.

This is the reason I feel the Elk’s Tongue reveal which ends this script falls so flat. Why, all of the sudden, is Elk’s Tongue so impressed with Glass that he does not want to kill him anymore? Hasn’t Glass already defeated a Grizzly, survived a mauling, and an abandonment? Why is a completed act of vengeance required before Elk’s Tongue can see that Glass is one of the most intelligent, competent, leaders the world has ever made?

You see, now, why I find the reveals so inferior in this script. Glass does receive positive recognition for who he is from Spotted Horse. He throws that recognition away for the opportunity to preserve an erroneous social order. When Glass pistol whips Bridger, and murders Fitzgerald, he has become a premise in the argument which concludes:

Some humans are better than others.

I hope that Leo’s casting as Glass signifies that someone [Inarritu?] saw how awful the theme of this story is if used as a mirror for the actual world. I further hope that someone rewrote this story and changed its theme. There is, as was noted in the comments to the first part of this review, the skeleton of an impressive script lurking in these storyquarks. The 2008 Black List draft is not that thing:

4 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 61

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