‘The Revenant’ – Film Review and Analysis

What happens when you push a man to his utmost limit? What occurs when you take everything from him including his wife and child? At the point of both physical and mental exhaustion, what carries the man forward to keep on fighting and to keep on living? Few films really probe these questions related to the power of the human spirit as realistically as ‘The Revenant.’ An excellent and unique film that was propelled to success, both commercially and critically because of the acting brilliance of Leonardo DiCaprio and through the special direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu.

‘The Revenant’ is a 2015 film that is both a sprawling epic and an intimate biography, which covers a time in American history where the West was not yet settled, and both the elements and the native population could cause a settler or a trader to lose their lives all too quickly. The film is also a western in that it depicts the rough and tumble life of a frontiersman who was at the whim of not only nature but also hostile animals and native tribes who were lurking just behind the shadows of the mountains and the forestry that surrounded them.

Hugh Glass (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) is one such frontiersman who was a real-life person skilled at being a fur trapper, explorer, and a hunter. While his story was embellished for ‘The Revenant’, the legend itself while it may not have happened in all of its audacity still makes for a great movie adaptation. The legend surrounding Mr. Glass involves him being left for dead after he was abandoned by the fur trappers, he was assisting in their quest to participate in the burgeoning fur trade in the Far West of Montana, the Dakotas, and Nebraska.

After a vicious attack by a grizzly bear while out hunting for food and provisions for General William Ashley’s expedition, Hugh Glass was essentially left for dead by those men who had abandoned him even though he was still alive. Glass had killed the grizzly bear who had attacked him but was essentially rendered immobile by the attack and could not talk or walk on his own two feet for weeks. In the historical accounts, Hugh Glass was able to somehow heal himself enough to crawl, stumble, and walk over 200 miles (320 kilometers) to Fort Kiowa, South Dakota to survive.

In the meantime, he had survived attacks from the native tribes, living in conditions of winter weather and brutal cold, and avoiding potential hazards such as icy tundra, treacherous mountains, and other elements. The one thing about both the historical portrayal of Hugh Glass’s story and that of ‘The Revenant’ was how he thrived in those brutal environments given his history as an explorer and a fur trapper. If you are able to live at the edge of civilization and make a living for yourself in doing so, you should never be counted out when it comes to surviving when all hell breaks loose.

Compared to the historical legend, Hugh Glass, thanks to the brilliant acting of Leonardo DiCaprio is given a more substantive background that makes him a more relatable figure. In the two and a half hours of the film, Glass is portrayed also as a family man just trying to make his way in the world by making himself useful to both the fur trappers and the U.S. Army personnel who have come to take territory for themselves and make themselves rich in the unforgiving North American wilderness. In this cutthroat environment, there are no room for careless mistakes and the viewer will see in the film just how deadly each day can be. If there is any wisdom that Hugh wishes to impart on his family is that he wants to give them the tools for survival even if that means his own demise.

Glass is not a perfect protagonist and it is clear from the beginning of the film that he is out for himself and his family alone as he does not let anyone, or anything come between him and his son Hawk. His deceased wife was a Pawnee Indian and his son, Hawk, is half-Pawnee. After the death of his wife, Hugh Glass is extremely protective of his son, Hawk, because he knows that the men, he is traveling with do not see him as an equal because of his Pawnee background. Glass is committed to protecting his son because that is all he has left to live for.

While respectful towards the Pawnee, Glass and the other fur traders are fearful of the Arikara who are out to find their tribe chief’s abducted daughter, Powaqa, even though they didn’t take her. In order to survive, Glass has to defend himself and the other traders from the Arikara who are vicious in their hatred of anyone who has invaded their territory. After the fateful bear attack that severely wounds Glass, Hawk prevents the trappers from killing his father and they move on without him leaving John Fitzgerald and Hawk to carry him back to the Fort where he can get medical attention.

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald is a sociopath only concerned about his own survival and terrified of the Arikara attacking again. Fitzgerald kills Hawk as Glass watches in agony because Fitzgerald was selfish in his desire to survive and leave Hugh to die. Another man, Bridger, leaves Glass to die as well and they take his gun and all of his provisions leaving him defenseless against the brutal elements. While Bridger is complicit, it is Fitzgerald who draws the ire and contempt from Glass in his quest for vengeance.

Despite being left for dead, Hugh Glass is hellbent on getting vengeance for the death of his son, Hawk, and wanted to get revenge on John Fitzgerald for killing his son, taking his provisions, and leaving him to die in the wilderness. Through his knowledge as a fur trapper, his ability to track both people and animals, Hugh was able to survive the treacherous winter conditions, heal himself and his wounds, and able to eat buffalo and horse meat to survive. So much was Glass’s desire for vengeance that he was able to travel the 200 miles to get to the Fort to seek treatment for his wounds and gather up the strength to set himself on the trail of John Fitzgerald. In the case of Hugh Glass, an eye for an eye is warranted when his whole life (his wife and his son) have been taken from him.

While the real-life story of Hugh Glass is up for debate, ‘The Revenant’ draws the audience in through its stunning visuals, powerful acting by actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy and the visionary directing by Iñárritu whose tracking shots from the opening battle to the bear attack scene to the final fight scene between Fitzgerald and Glass will leave the viewer breathless. This is a pure survivalist movie of man against man and nature but it also revolves around an emotional core of someone who is trying to do his best to sustain himself and his son in harsh living conditions. The movie’s setting is strongly intertwined with a perilous time in American history where Native Americans, fur trappers, French explorers, and even the U.S. army were fighting to the death for control of lucrative trades and future security in the untamed yet wild territory of the Northwest region.

DiCaprio and Iñárritu made ‘The Revenant’ in mind for its unabashed portrayal of both the beauty and the brutality of the natural environment. It is a movie that highlights how precious and fragile our climate is and how men can negatively affect it through their desire for greed and power. ‘The Revenant’ is as much as a morality tale as it is a tale of the utility of revenge. Two men, one whose world has been ripped apart due to the loss of his wife and son, and another man who fears losing his money, his fur pelts, and his life to Arikara attack are brought together in a struggle of good against evil. The film poses the question of is vengeance worth it? and how can justice be served in a world that is based on survival and not codes of morality or law? Arguably, one of the best films of 2015, ‘The Revenant’ was one of the best films of this decade and deserves a viewing.

Led by an Academy award winning director (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu) and starring an Academy award winning actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), ‘The Revenant’ is a jaw-dropping and powerful film that will stay with you after the credits roll. The film’s themes are extremely relevant in terms of its varied focus on family, revenge, survival, and how to seek justice in a lawless environment. More than anything, it shows the fragility of civilization and how important it is to be able to put yourself in difficult and challenging situations to show what you are made of. Hugh Glass was not a perfect man but he knew what it took to survive against all odds and seek justice against those who had wronged him and his family even if it meant certain death.

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‘Traffic’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘Traffic’ (2000) is one of those films that was way ahead of its’ time when it was first released over a decade and a half ago. It is a film that makes you think deeply hours or even days after you first watch it. ‘Traffic’ should be viewed more than once to really understand all of the nuances and subtleties embedded in its’ individual stories underneath its’ overarching central themes.

When compared to most other movies of the crime drama genre, ‘Traffic’ gained a lot of particular praise for the way its’ director and screenwriter were able to successfully weave multiple plotlines, characters, and settings together that slightly overlap with each other but are seamless enough as to not overburden the viewer with unrealistic connections.

‘Traffic’ is a movie that respects the intelligence of its’ audience and isn’t afraid to tackle the controversial topic of the ‘War on Drugs.’ It’s quite surprising when you think about how this movie was released back in 2000, but is still just as relevant and timely of an issue today as it was back when it was first released to the public. When ‘Traffic’ came out, it gained universal recognition and critical acclaim, and after viewing it for the first time, it’s easy to see why it was so noteworthy.

Steven Soderbergh directed ‘Traffic’, and Stephen Gaghan wrote its screenplay. Mr. Gaghan, who was responsible for another multi-layered film with multiple plotlines in ‘Syriana’ (2005), which also starred an ensemble cast of actors dealing with a different timely issue of oil and geopolitics in the Middle East. Unbeknownst to most people, ‘Traffic’ won numerous awards including for Oscar awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. This ensemble cast of actors for ‘Traffic’ is very impressive and includes star names such as Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta Jones.

At its’ core, ‘Traffic’ focuses on the illegal drug trade going on in both the United States and Mexico. One of the brilliant things about this film is the fact that each character in the movie represents a different perspective on the drug war whether they are a user, enforcer, trafficker, lawyer, or politician. It’s unlikely that a film like ‘Traffic’ would be made today but it’s distinctive editing, multi-use of colors depending on which of the three stories are being highlighted, and the political relevance of its’ themes could keep a lot of viewers away these days.

Its’ importance and timeliness today can’t be overstated as this film doesn’t try to impose a point of view on the audience. ‘Traffic’ would rather cause the individual viewer to ask questions, seek out more knowledge about the issue, and weigh the different opinions expressed by the characters throughout the movie. The three-color grades that are used for the three different stories are probably one of the most interesting things that I’ve ever seen when it comes to film editing. Each story in ‘Traffic’ could be its’ own movie in its’ own right, and the film is lengthier than most in terms of run time at two hours and twenty minutes total.

To briefly highlight the substance of the three stories without spoiling the whole movie, let’s go over each one to introduce the arch of the overall plot to prospective viewers out there. The first story is mainly set in Mexico City and other parts of the country, which highlights the efforts of two Mexican police officers that are trying to do their job as enforcers of the law under difficult circumstances. While trying to bring down local cartels in the easiest way possible, the two officers, one of them, Javier Rodriquez (played by Benicio del Toro) come up against corruption, and crime within their own ranks, which makes their ability as officers to keep their areas safe difficult with money and influence blurring the line between the good guys and bad guys.

Officer Rodriguez (del Toro) wants to do his best to keep his job, but to also hold his fellow policemen and elements of the Mexican army accountable for their actions without compromising his safety. He knows that ending the drug war is futile but he wants to keep his immediate community safe and that of its’ inhabitants. This is especially true if it means that the local kids in his neighborhood can play baseball at night with new stadium lights and not be at risk of joining gangs instead in their free time.

The second storyline in ‘Traffic’ takes place between the nexus of small town Ohio and the capital city of Washington, DC in the United States. A conservative judge, Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas), is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he becomes an unofficial ‘drug czar.’ Mr. Wakefield doesn’t seem to be enthused with the new position he’s been given due to the long hours, lack of support, and political skepticism from the official circles within Washington. He tries to make the most of fighting the ‘war on drugs’ even if he knows deep down that it is truly unwinnable. Because he is away from his family for long periods of time, he is unaware that his daughter in high school has developed a drug problem over the past six months and is struggling with a heroin addiction now.

On top of dealing with being a father and the leader of a national drug control policy effort, he struggles to be a open and forthcoming husband to his wife. Compared to other characters in the film, Wakefield changes the most in his views on the ‘war on drugs’ as the audience can see that his mindset changes when this issue becomes personal and not just professional. With his daughter’s future and life at stake, the ‘war on drugs’ becomes less of an abstract war and more of a battle to save his family from falling apart.

The third and last storyline takes place mostly in southern California in the San Diego area where two DEA agents are conducting an underground investigation. The investigation, led by Agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle), eventually leads to the successful capture and arrest of a top drug dealer, Eduardo Ruiz, who pretends to be a fisherman as his cover.

This arrest is instrumental in helping along the trial of suspected drug lord, Carl Ayala, who is thought to be the leading distributor of illegal drugs for one of the biggest cartels in the world. Ruiz is important to be kept alive and in good shape so that he can testify to the illegal activities of Ayala and his empire, but that is harder for the DEA than they ever imagined. With Ayala’s possible imprisonment and/or cooperation, the DEA agents are hoping to bring down this cartel, once and for all.

However, since Ayala and his wife, Helen (played by Catherine Zeta Jones), have a lot of wealth and influence still, they are able to put a damper on the DEA’s plans with the help of the shady family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (played by Dennis Quaid). DEA Agent Gordon and his partner are unable throughout the film to cope with the long tentacles of the drug cartels, and the amount of money and hit men the Ayala’s are able to use to threaten the safety of the DEA’s witness and the potential success of the prosecution against Ayala. You could imagine that this particular story in the film does not come with a happy ending.

Any of the three unique yet intertwined storylines of ‘Traffic’ could be ripped from newspaper headlines from over the past forty years. Ever since the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’ back in the 1970’s, there has been endless debate about whether there have been any successes or mainly just the upholding of the status quo. ‘Traffic’ doesn’t try to impose a simple yes or no answer to the ‘war on drugs’ question.

Rather, this film intelligently asks its’ audience to weigh the outcomes of these different stories that are affected by the drug trade, and the viewer is supposed to make that decision for themselves. When it comes to special movies like ‘Traffic’, there are no simple black and white solutions. There are many shades of grey in all of these human stories, and it takes deep insight, critical thinking, and analysis in order for slow changes of the status quo to actually occur.

While this is a fictional movie, it is made clear by the film itself that a lot of these characters are based off of actual people who make up all sides of the ‘war on drugs.’ Overall, the one key thing that the ending of this film makes clear to the audience is that there are no winners in the drug war, only losers, and it takes an impactful movie like ‘Traffic’ to make that fact absolutely clear.