“The Revenant” Teaches Us About Writing Action Sequences
The Revenant screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, based on the book by Michael Punke, is one of the best action films of the year. Set in 1823, the action scenes lack sophisticated weaponry, machinery or major explosions – all the things most action movies today rely upon. Instead, The Revenant manages to keep the audience on the edge of its seat by harnessing the dangers of the natural world, where it will take a miracle for fur-trapper, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), to survive freezing temperatures, a brutal bear attack and the ruthless betrayal of his own crew.
It’s almost as if The Revenant boasts more grunts than dialogue but the screenplay’s action scenes leap off the page, thoroughly engaging the reader. Let’s take a closer look at how the screenwriters, Smith and Inarritu, balance movement with stillness, gentleness with terror, and the age-old battle of man vs. beast.
The bear attack
Perhaps the most talked about action scene in the film is when Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear. This is the inciting incident of the film and appropriately begins on page 17.
Let’s take a look at the first scene.
First, let’s note all the active verbs in the opening description:
Glass moves slowly through the brush, almost gliding…subtle twists and turns to avoid branches and leaves...
Glass doesn’t simply walk through the brush, his movement is described in terms of, “gliding – twists – turns – avoids”. These verbs help create a clear, active image of the character for the reader. It is just slightly stylized yet realistic enough to be believable. The fact that Glass “avoids” branches and leaves shows that his character is well adjusted to this natural environment. Let’s continue:
O.S. RUSTLING snaps his head up… to the TREMBLING OF BUSHES… growing harder… whatever’s in there is coming toward Glass. He calmly raises his rifle… presses the stock firmly against his shoulder… closes one eye as he takes steady aim down the long barrel…to the shapes rumbling out of the brush… TWO BEAR CUBS playfully wrestling.
The bear cub moment is crucial to set up the next sequence. Here, the writers create suspense when Glass hears the “trembling of bushes,” but then falsely lulls the reader into a sense of calmness, after filling the reader’s head with an adorable image of two baby bears playing. Just as the reader lets out a sigh of relief, we track Glass’s next moments in real time, along with him.
Glass lowers the Anstadt… looks past the cubs for something else… but the woods are empty. A SUDDEN FEAR FILLS GLASS’ EYES…
The sweet image of the cubs contrasts heavily with what’s coming next: the beast. Going from the serine into chaos makes for high drama. In musical terms, think Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – both create tension and drama by switching from slower rhythms to faster ones and back again. As the reader, we experience these heart-pounding moments with Glass. We observe the sweet cubs at the same time as Glass, but we do the math with him as well. Two cubs means one protective mother must be near by. Glass spins right into the mother bear…And we’re right there with him!
Now, we’re into the fight.
The verbs: “spins – hitting – flying – sails – crack – snapping – charges – crawls. Not even man’s greatest weapon of the day, a rifle, can stop this beast.
Again, let’s look at the verbs: “Fighting – tumbling – trading – snapping – roll.” The writers wisely use snippets of action, rather than full sentences, to connote the fast pace and quick shots. Taking the time to read full sentences would slow down the heated emotion of the scene.
This moment also sets up an important dichotomy we’ll call a “David and Goliath moment.” All the most engaging and empathetic protagonists face an antagonist who is far more powerful, with more sophisticated weaponry. The bear’s size and razor-sharp claws are no match against Glass’s smaller body and mere daggers for defense, yet Glass doesn’t give up. Our primal fear of wild beasts is piqued and our adrenaline begins to pump. This is pure survival at its most basic and most powerful. Let’s continue with the scene:
… and ROLL DOWN… spinning over and over… each ROARING AT THE OTHER…
Both beast and man “Roar” showing each creature’s will to survive.
Glass pounding the knife into the bear again
and again as they fall… neither willing to surrender as they careen down the slope at a dizzying pace, then SLAM TO THE BOTTOM WITH A CRUNCH.
The verbs: “Roll – spinning – roaring – pounding – careen – dizzying – slam.” “Dizzying” implies an altered state of consciousness, during which Glass may possibly transcend average human ability. Also, the writers put the most gruesome sounds in all caps to emphasize the danger.
Then, most importantly, the action is met with stillness. This is where the rhythm of storytelling again shifts.
The forest falls still… Glass hidden somewhere beneath the massive animal… both deathly motionless.
Here, the reader is able to catch their breath, but still remains on high alert, asking themselves the questions: What’s going to happen next? Will Glass survive? How?
The scene ends with uncertainty, creating overwhelming suspense and hooking the reader into finishing the script. This is crucial, as the reader knows the rest of the screenplay will put on display Glass’ challenges to survive, with the expectation that Glass will thoroughly, through bravery and sacrifice, earn his survival.
Screenwriter / Film Critic
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards.