Sunday, September 10, 2017

Wind River: A compelling, smoothly flowing drama

Wind River (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, rape, profanity and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang

The narrative in writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s superbly mounted Wind River is driven by equal parts grief, loyalty and justice ... the latter not necessarily to be confused with the rules of law.

Having back-tracked a fleeing young woman's progress through the harsh landscape of
the snow-covered mountains near Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and FBI agent Jane Banner
(Elizabeth Olsen) make an unexpected discovery.
In three short years, actor-turned-filmmaker Sheridan has established an impressive reputation for thoughtful, riveting dramas that place characters in situations — and environments — where the American dream is little more than cruel irony.

His scripting debut, with 2015’s Sicario, becomes more relevant by the day: its grim, uncompromising depiction of drug violence along the U.S./Mexican border an unhappy reminder of the degree to which American demand is responsible for Mexican supply. Last year’s Hell or High Water perceptively explored the callously unjust circumstances that drive disillusioned men to criminal activity, when they’re on the wrong side of the wealth/poverty divide in West Texas; Sheridan earned a well-deserved Academy Award nod for that one.

He also has been fortunate to see his projects embraced by strong casts delivering some of their finest work: from Emily Blunt’s naïve and idealistic FBI agent in Sicario; to the cat-and-mouse chase between Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, in Hell or High Water. Good or bad, noble or ignominious, the characters are always fascinating: often bearing the burden of some degree of failure.

Sheridan also has an ear for both dialogue — the way people actually talk to each other — and, even more crucially, the way they behave with each other.

And now, with his quietly powerful Wind River, he has zeroed in on what remains of America’s frontier, which — sadly — also is a damning indictment of American history, and the utter failure to properly address past sins.

The setting is the snow-enshrouded, late winter/early spring environment of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) routinely employs his tracking skills to eliminate predators — wolves, mountain lions — caught killing livestock. He’s an honorable man, liked and respected by ranchers and just-plain-folks within and bordering the reservation.

He wed a Native American woman — Julia Jones, as Wilma — and they dote on their young son, Casey (Teo Briones). But the marriage, which once must have been happy, is a painfully splintered relic of the past, their bond unable to survive a family tragedy.

Sheridan displays both his writing and directorial chops right from the start, as Cory arrives at the house he once shared with Wilma, to collect Casey for some “Dad time.” Cory and Wilma are uneasy in each other’s presence, wanting to be cordial; Renner’s forlorn gaze fuels the spare and carefully measured sentences that pass for conversation, as if Cory fears — probably accurately — that the slightest wrong word will prompt her to close the door in his face.

It’s an achingly despondent moment — as are all of the scenes shared by Renner and Jones — and presented with such quietly raw intensity that we feel uncomfortable, like unwilling voyeurs. And it’s characteristic of the guiding hand that Sheridan employs with all his characters, and their equally persuasive interactions.

A routine tracking assignment leads Cory to an unpleasant discovery: the recently frozen corpse of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), an 18-year-old reservation resident. The body is miles from anything, and she lacks proper winter clothing, her frostbitten bare feet a testament to her having run a considerable distance ... but from where, and from what?

The prickly jurisdictional issues prompt the arrival of rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who shows up wholly unprepared for the uncompromisingly harsh and life-threatening environment. Her inexperience is viewed as an insult by the dead young woman’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham); Jane, despite meaning well, clumsily tramples over the man’s grief. Martin therefore places his faith in his friend Cory: Find who did this, and make them pay for it.

Fortunately, Jane’s good intentions are recognized by Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene), who affords her the courtesy of his cooperation. Jane, in turn, wisely acknowledges her limitations and requests Cory’s help in an official capacity. As this is compatible with his promise to Martin, he agrees.

It’s Cory’s job; it’s what he’s good at. And, given that this assignment cuts into his quality time with Casey, we realize — from Renner’s resolute expression — that doing his job gets him through each day.

The subsequent investigation unfolds with the methodical precision that has long fascinated readers (and viewers) of well-scripted police/detective procedurals. Indeed, this film’s setting, atmosphere and approach will be familiar to readers of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series, and Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels (the latter turned into an equally enjoyable, ongoing TV series).

Like those authors, Sheridan leavens his script with occasional humor, often poking fun at Jane’s fish-out-of-water discomfort ... but we always chuckle with the character, and never at her. Olsen plays the role with quite well: Jane is firm, comfortable in her authority and guided by procedure, yet willing to seek and accept guidance. At the same time, her respect for law and order doesn’t preclude righteous indignation when “the system” feels unjust.

The venerable Greene, long an actor of impressive dignity, makes Chief Ben both likable and sharply perceptive. He misses nothing, and his gentle “guidance” of Jane always springs from compassion, and never from irritation or contempt. He’s like a wise, kindly grandfather who encourages his descendants to follow the right path, and patiently nudges them when missteps are made.

Greene also gets the best of Sheridan’s sparse, frequently mordant one-liners: observations often laced with irony.

Sidebar characters, as they’re enveloped by the expanding investigation, are portrayed with persuasive credibility by actors who both look and sound right for their respective parts. Then there’s the matter of the mystery itself, the details of which Sheridan illuminates with tantalizing deliberation.

He also pulls off a nifty trick in the third act, which violates point-of-view but serves to grant a voice to the deceased Natalie (and feels spiritually valid, given the story’s setting).

Production designer Neil Spisak and cinematographer Ben Richardson put us smack in the midst of this gorgeous but silently perilous setting, where the environment itself is as deadly as any of its human inhabitants. No film has so wholly immersed us in bitter cold since 1996’s Fargo, and I daresay we’ve never been presented with such a clinical description — and depiction — of death by exposure to such conditions.

We get the message: People don’t simply live here. Mere survival is a daily struggle.

Sheridan also deserves kudos for the subtext that drives this story: the resentful, often angry desperation with which the reservation inhabitants struggle to retain crumbs of dignity, in an effort to honor and maintain their heritage. Sheridan doesn’t preach, but these nuances are always felt, as is an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism, and the response to same.

The writer/director wanted this element to sound and feel right; his film credits acknowledge the participation of numerous Native American advisors, along with representatives of sovereign nations and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

His quest for authenticity paid off. Wind River succeeds as both engaging drama and intriguing mystery, our hearts and minds firmly attached to characters who are both thoughtfully constructed and forcefully presented. This is a far, far better film than its unheralded late-summer arrival suggests, and I fear that this low profile will leave it overlooked, when Oscar nominations are handed out.

That’ll be a genuine shame.

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