Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wind River

Alternate Title:  Home on the Range
One sentence synopsis:  A professional hunter and an FBI agent try to solve a brutal murder on an Arapaho reservation in remote Wyoming.

Things Havoc liked: As anyone who listens to my end-of-year podcasts already knows (and that is all of you, right?), last year was a pretty dismal year for movies. It happens. But one of the shining exceptions was the neo-western crime thriller Hell or High Water, a superb film set in the bleak landscape of the West Texas plains, about a pair of brothers robbing banks to try and save their family's farm, while being pursued by Texas Rangers. I waxed eloquently over the virtues of Hell or High Water twice, once during the review itself, and once during the best-of-the-year Havoc Awards, but what I did not know when I was waxing-so was that the writer of that film, a man named Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote Sicario, was in the process of making the leap from writer to writer-director of another windswept neo-western, this time a murder mystery set in the magnificent desolation of North-west Wyoming.

And it's amazing.

Wind River is one of the best films of the year, a staggeringly-good and unflinching character-and-setting study mated with an excellent murder-mystery. Like Hell or High Water before it, it is a film with a tremendous sense of place, specifically in this case the Wind River Arapaho Reservation of Wyoming, a place which, in the dead of winter, is not particularly conducive to human life. Also like Hell or High Water, it is a quiet, subtle film, taking the time to languish over its setting and characters, indulging in the magnificent desolation of the wintry mountains, and punctuating things when necessary with scenes of brutal violence. I was always a fan of Sheridan's writing, his pedigree alone demanded that, but with this film he has vaulted himself into the ranks of excellent writer-directors, a perilous perch that few can ever attain.

Wind River stars Jeremy Renner, an actor I have long admired, as Cory Lambert, a Fish & Game agent who works in the remote Wyoming mountains. Lambert is white, but his ex-wife, and thus his son and daughter are or were Arapaho Indians, and his job as a predator hunter places him in close contact with the inhabitants of what everyone calls "The Rez". I say 'are and were' because Renner's daughter is dead, killed in unknown circumstances, as so many Native American women are, and found in a remote area with no evidence as to how she came to be there. As such, when he discovers the body of another young woman in the snow, raped and dead of exposure, the daughter of a friend of his, he throws himself into the task of finding out what happened to this one girl with the aid of anyone he can find. Make no mistake, this is a tricky role, as it would be very easy to appear as the typical "white savior", or follow the Dances with Wolves trope of the white man being purged of his evil white guilt by becoming an Indian, but the film is too well-made, and Renner too good an actor to fall into these pitfalls. A standout scene early on in the movie has an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) inadvertently insult the grieving parents of the murdered girl through ignorance and officiousness, only for Renner to show up moments later to ask more or less the same questions, but with a completely different attitude and level of experience with the culture he's dealing with and the people he's talking to. Lest I sound like I'm picking on Olsen, though, she's excellent as well, a fresh-faced FBI agent who knows next-to-nothing about the situation she's been dropped into except for the fact that she knows next-to-nothing about it, which is the most important fact of all. Aware that the only reason she was sent to the Reservation was because crimes there are considered unimportant, she does her level best, conscious of her inadequacy for the task, because nobody else is coming.

But while Renner and Olsen are both very, very good, it's the supporting cast that really sells the film. Gil Birmingham, of Hell or High Water (and the Twilight series, though we'll forgive him for that), plays the aforementioned father of the aforementioned murder victim, a small role that is nonetheless fantastically-well-done, combining existential-grade grief with a practical side generally missing from roles like this one. Graham Greene meanwhile, one of my favorite character actors working,
plays the Reservation Police Chief, whose task it is and has been for years to try and police an area the size of Connecticut with six men. As this is manifestly impossible, Greene's character, like everyone else, simply does what he can do, despite everything, and Greene is exceptionally good at showcasing someone whose choices are cynicism or doggedness, and whose chooses the latter with open eyes despite all evidence to the contrary. There is also an extended flashback sequence involving Kelsey Chow and Baby Driver and Fury's Jon Bernthal as Natalie, the murdered girl, and Matt, her boyfriend, both of whom are superb, as are a host of other more minor actors such as James Jordan. This sequence, though difficult to watch (it involves murder and rape, among other wholesome pursuits), is one of the best scenes of the sort that I have ever seen, a sequence that showcases, without histrionics or dramatic irony, just how the most heinous of crimes can come about through a combination of alcohol, testosterone, group dynamics, and unrestrained escalation. Were the film nothing but this scene, it would justify its existence, but as it stands, it is the jewel in the film's crown.

Indeed, the entire film is remarkably well-made, from the gorgeous cinematography and understated
score, to the brief, brutal flashes of violence that erupt without warning. It calls back, quite consciously, to westerns and crime dramas like Unforgiven, Collateral, or Heat, using referential shot selection and self aware stylism. The soundtrack is all mood-music, western-influenced electronica and rock, primarily scored together by legendary musicians Warren Ellis and Nick Cave (the latter of whom holds the most awesome nickname in history as "Rock Music's Prince of Darkness", bestowed on him by Johnny Cash of all people). The pacing is slower than any of Sheridan's previous works (probably an effect of him directing, this time), but the result is a sombre, windswept, dramatic piece that doesn't luxuriate in darkness or give in to rabid polemic. It's a balancing act that gets more impressive every time I think about it. It's close to being a masterpiece.

Things Havoc disliked: Honestly, there's not much wrong with Wind River whatsoever, at least nothing that isn't clearly done for effect as opposed to sloppiness. Some of the predator/prey symbolism is a bit on the nose for my taste, but that's the risk that comes with shooting movies in the American West, an area rich with scenic mythology and symbolic landscapes. There are also a handful of plot cul-de-sacs that are reasonably well-established before being dropped unceremoniously, such as Renner's relationship with his son, ex-wife, and in-laws, all of whom get time devoted to their setup, all of whom are forgotten about in the aftermath of the film's payoff. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a bit of tonal whiplash on occasion, as the film oscillates between hyper-realistic murder-mystery and sudden, explosive gun battles (I'm not quite sure what the end-game of someone who decides to start a shootout with six cops and the FBI is). But overall, none of these issues mar the film's qualities beyond the occasional quizzical moment.

Final thoughts:   In case I've somehow been unclear, Wind River is a phenomenal film, one of the best neo-westerns I've ever seen, and a strong contender for the best film of 2017. I absolutely love and unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone even casually interested in westerns, thrillers, mysteries, or any one of the fine actors that appear within it. As for myself, I will be watching Taylor Sheridan closely for whatever he does next, as a new filmmaker capable of producing a movie this good can only either continue to make spectacular movies, or can take the Michael Cimino/Tod Browning route, and follow up their breakout hit with a movie so off-kilter that it bankrupts their studio and gets them blacklisted from Hollywood forever.

Either way, it'll be fun to watch.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Next Time:  And now we consider another sober and reasonable film in which Taron Edgerton beats a man with his own arm.

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