Reel Reflections: The Power of Focus

Reel Reflections: The Power of Focus

By E. P. Whinters

Spotlight and The Revenant

Like last week, in viewing movies back-to-back, it is inevitable to seek a common theme, and when that common theme is a driving force in each film, reflection is easy. This last week, viewing perhaps the two top contenders for the coveted Best Picture Oscar, I was definitely affected by the theme of Focus when I watched Spotlight and The Revenant. In one, the focus was pushing through the obstacles to expose the corruption in the institution of the diocese of the Catholic church; in the other, the focus was on pushing through the obstacles of nature and horrific physical injuries to seek revenge for the death of a son.

SpotlightSpotlight is a powerful and tightly written, acted, and directed film based on the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. The ensemble performances are such that to pull out one over the other is very difficult; you really feel like you are a fly on the wall as these journalists from this team begin to peel back the layers to this incredible horror. I think they did an exceptional job of focusing on the institution and the factors at play in the cover-up and not washing the entire Catholic church with the same brush, though at the end you are left with a sick feeling as you wonder how deep this goes into the history of this institution.

In a pivotal scene for me, I was left affected on many levels as I watched the team take a phone call from a therapist who made this his specialty. The camera begins tight on the team; they fill the screen. As the conversation becomes more ‘weighty’, more exposing, and the number of priests rise from 12 to 6% and the realization of what that means sinks in, the camera slowly pulls back … the screen is no longer tight on the team, but they are small parts on the right side of the picture, dwarfed by the rest of the room. The weight of their realization became reflected in the weight of the room on their backs and a nauseating feeling in the stomach of the viewer.

If I were to isolate a ‘Director’s Concept’ from this film (a line on which every aspect of the entire film is hinged which is something I do in every film I see), I would point to the line: “It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to abuse one.” Not only does this point to the depth of deception and collective participation uncovered, but also it alludes to the good that the Catholic church did do in many cases. A beautiful Christmas scene is given, the only one actually from inside a church (though you see many old imposing cathedrals in various street scenes); a choir of children singing carols, so tender and holy … and on the side, part of the choir, 2 boys around the age of 12. The age for abuse, and you wonder.

I have to share one sobering reflection that has been weighing on me since viewing this film. One of the strong themes is about the ‘old boys club’, the historical significance of a small town and how everyone is part of that culture and you don’t question or challenge. As the journalists started to uncover this horror, as much as they were up against the cover-up from the Catholic diocese, they also faced the pressure from the Boston culture to not rock the boat. It’s not that bad. Look at all the good they’ve done. … and I later chewed on watching an element of the same thinking play out on our political playground today, in Alberta and Canada. I can’t help but wonder what is going on when journalists, albeit of some legitimacy in some eyes, are pressured into silence, when certain political voices are shut down, because those in power “are not that bad, and look at the good they’ve done”, how we are turning our backs on red flags because of an ‘old boys club’, or perhaps ‘political mindset club’ would be more politically correct.

TheRevenantI’ve used up most of this reflection on Spotlight, because there is so much already in the media on The Revenant. The one-line summary of this film states that it’s about Hugh Glass, played by Leo Dicaprio, a frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s as he fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team. I will say that this is not a movie for everyone, and that the viewer needs to have a measure of appreciation for a director like Inerratu. To say that this is ‘his’ film is an understatement. The control he has over every element you see in the screen (except for chinooks!), is quite amazing at times, even if you find yourself groaning over another shot of trees. This is his film, his baby, not ours; and he graces us in sharing his vision with us. If we miss it or do not approve of it in some way, that is our problem, not his. And, on some level, his dedication to this truth of his is to be commended.

I said in the beginning that both of these movies are about focus and this is almost ‘in-your-face’ in The Revenant. Focus on the environment and scenery, some would say a third main character in the film, beautiful and unforgiving at the same time; focus of John Fitzgerald on his greed and self-survival, regardless of who is in his way; focus of Hugh Glass, to overcome the bear mauling and being buried alive to get revenge on the man who left him to die and killed his son (I cannot resist the urge to adapt a quote from The Princess Bride – “I am Hugh Glass, you killed my son, prepare to die!”), and all he went through on this quest. For as much fiction as was inserted into the film in comparison to the Glass’s real story, apparently the fact that there was a Hugh Glass, he was mauled horribly by a bear, buried alive and left to die by Fitzgerald and managed somehow to travel 200 miles back to civilization in the frontier 1820s in this condition is truth. The power of the human spirit is sometimes beyond comprehension!

An interesting piece to the understanding of this movie lies in the title: The Revenant. It comes from the French verb ‘revenir’; and means “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead” and nowhere else in the movie is this evident in amazing detail and power than when Glass walks out of the ghostly trees in the middle of the night, backlit by fire torches, camouflaged by snow and trees, an unbelievable apparition that survived unimaginable obstacles.

I found The Revenant breath-taking and commanding on many cinematic levels, but it was a difficult movie to watch. Leo Dicaprio spends a great deal of the movie in silence, so the communication is left to his eyes. As you become accustomed to watching his eyes, you also start to watch the other eyes, and the stark contrast of raw emotion in Glass’s eyes, with the dead, black eyes of Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy) often left chills down my spine.

It is my thought that best picture will go to one of these two films. I drove home pondering: of these eight movies, which is the best of this year? Which gave us, the viewer, the best film possible? And I had a feeling that it will be one of these two. Regardless of what the viewer thinks of the work of Inerratu, of his obsession with trees and quirky artsy elements, of long shots that almost leave you gasping for air, he is an obsessive visionary but is not without strong competition. From a film point of view, others, I think, were tighter, more direct, and maybe more powerful in their own way … of which Spotlight possibly leads the pack.

I will reflect tonight on my thoughts for the main winners on Sunday night and share them here tomorrow. Please take a moment tomorrow evening to check back for my thoughts on this!

The Academy Awards air Sunday, February 28 at 6:30pm on CTV. If you’re interested: Canada’s etalk at the Oscars starts at 4:00 and Live from the Red Carpet at 5:00, and who doesn’t like being an armchair critic to see what is being worn by whom?

Spotlight Academy Award Nominations for:

  • Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Best Achievement in Directing: Tom McCarthy
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Mark Ruffalo
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Rachel McAdams
  • Best Writing, Original Screenplay
  • Best Achievement in Film Editing

The Revenant Academy Award Nominations for:

  • Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Best Achievement in Directing: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Leonardo DiCaprio
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Tom Hardy
  • Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • Best Achievement in Film Editing
  • Best Achievement in Costume Design
  • Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling
  • Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
  • Best Achievement in Sound Editing
  • Best Achievement in Visual Effects
  • Best Achievement in Production Design