Sunday, 24 December 2017

Movie Review: Wind River (2017)



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The plot: Wildlife tracker Cory (Jeremy Renner), while on a routine hunt, discovers the body of a dead Native America woman in the snow. As she alerts the residents of the surrounding reservation of Wind River, in particular the victim’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham), FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought in to help with the investigation. As she and Cory try to figure who was responsible for the death, they are confronted with just how dangerous this land can be.





Renner seems to have tapped into something unprecedented here. The way he fits so well into his role as a neo-Western tracker is among the best I’ve seen in modern Western revisionist cinema, channelling a grizzled understanding of the dangers of his surroundings along with an unrelenting determination to make things better, even if only for a little while. Olsen does very well as the FBI agent stuck in the middle of the chaos, working nicely alongside Renner and getting across that same sense of quiet but laser-guided focus that made Kate Macer from Sicario so effective.

Burmingham is quite haunting here, portraying a lot of the film’s underlying sorrow over the treatment of Native Americans through some well-delivered dialogue and some even harder-hitting moments of silence. It is seriously good seeing this guy attached to a film that is willing to allow Native Americans some dignity, given that his most recognised role of late is as part of the Twilight series. Same goes for Graham Greene as the local sheriff, combining Cory’s grim understanding with Martin’s low-key mourning to create an avatar for just how much strength it takes to survive on the Frontier. However, major props are due for Jon Bernthal as one of the guards of a local drilling site, who brings so much warmth and goodwill at such a crucial moment in the story as to ensure that the darkness contained in the ending hits with the hardest intensity possible.

Writer and now director Taylor Sheridan has come a long way since Sicario. I don’t know if directors Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie gave him some pointers during their own productions of Sheridan scripts but, whatever the case, this is an incredibly strong effort for a directorial debut. The visuals go for a similar approach to The Snowman, in that it wants to make the blinding whiteness of the snow-capped terrain as unsettling as possible, and because this production actually got everything finished, it actually works here. It gets across the cold and unforgiving feel of the environment, and yet it’s not so overwhelming that it becomes white noise. Apparently, cinematographer Ben Richardson can do some damn cool things with framing and composition when he isn’t stuck filming the worst wedding of all time with Table 19 earlier this year. And then there’s the soundtrack by neo-Western architects Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which uses delicate piano taps, sweeping strings and haunting vocals to make the locale feel like there are a lot of bodies buried under all that snow.

Not that Sheridan has slumped as a writer as here either; in fact, this might be the purest depiction of his sensibilities we’ve gotten yet. He gives all of the characters this extremely grounded feeling, as if they are people plucked out of the real world, and the way he handles the always-tricky gambit of Caucasian/Native American interactions is quite commendable. He somehow manages to transcend the fact that he’s a white American writer making a story about white Americans needing to “save the day” on a Native American reservation by how much dignity he allows the traditional owners, not to mention showing genuine sympathy for how common stories like these are. Even beyond the handling of race relations, the dialogue for this is simply gorgeous. Starting out on a literal poem that immediately sets the tone for the film to follow, the lines spoken all feel like they are speaking to a very real mindset associated with the New American Frontier, just filtered through a rather lyrical vocabulary.

The main reason why I call this the purest Sheridan script we’ve yet gotten, aside from how freaking amazing it is on its own, is that this feels like a culmination of a man’s body of work. Indeed, that’s what this is, as it rounds off a thematic trilogy preceded by Sicario and Hell Or High Water. Across all three of them, Sheridan basically reframes three key staples of the Old West and contextualizes them into the modern world. With Sicario, we had the sheriffs and lawmakers, shown to be far more compromised than the almost-saintly gunslingers of yore. With Hell Or High Water, we had the outlaws, shown to be not nearly as cut-and-dry evil as we remember, bringing together contributing factors as to why they turned to a life of crime in the first place. And here, we have the cowboy, here represented by Cory’s wildlife tracker; a hunter whose main job is to hunt down predators… except nowadays, the real predators are wolves in human clothing. The main recurring trend across this trilogy is that, regardless of how much has or hasn’t changed, the American Frontier is still as dangerous as ever. It’s still the same barren wasteland that takes the weak by the throat and throws them to the wolves.

Here is where the writing goes from simply great into genuinely fucking astounding. Through Cory and Jane trying to track down who raped and inadvertently killed Natalie, we are given all the examples of how only the strong can survive this climate… and yet, that never becomes a judgement call on Natalie as a victim who was “too weak”. Instead, by directly comparing both her and her attacker, we see that strength isn’t simply exerting aggression for its own sake. Aggression can take away a life, but it’s rather useless at preserving one, and through this story, we see how someone who could make it six miles on barefoot in sub-zero temperatures has far more strength than a lowly and rather pathetic rapist. Given how people in the real world still can’t make that distinction today, I’m honestly floored at how well it is executed here.

All in all, this is a truly astounding work. The acting is terrific, the visuals give us the most potent depiction of cold horror we’ve gotten all year, the dialogue is as sharp as an ice pick, and the writing overall delivers a rather harrowing depiction of the American Frontier, along with the numerous and still-unfound victims of it. Add to that one of Nick Cave’s best soundtrack efforts to date and a nimbleness that allows for admission of how dangerous the Frontier is without casting aspersions on those who don’t survive, and you have a film that I knew Taylor Sheridan had in him after seeing his work on Sicario.

It ranks higher than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which may have been more salient in its approach to racial attitudes (mostly, as the only two African-American characters in the film ending up together still irks me slightly), but this is undoubtedly more sympathetic and the emotions involved hit harder as a result. However, as truly impressive as this film is, it still doesn’t tug my heartstrings as hard as Loving Vincent, a film as beautiful as it is highly resonant about topics that are unfortunately close to me.

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