Thursday, June 20, 2024

Wind River is Filled With Immense Empathy and Beauty

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Taylor Sheridan is a screenwriter with a mounting list of supposedly great movies. I say ‘supposedly’ because, in my own ignorance, I haven’t seen any of them except Hell or High Water. I detested Hell or High Water.

After seeing Sheridan’s directorial sophomore effort, Wind River, I’m wondering if maybe I missed something. I called his previous movie ‘racist pablum’. But while watching Wind River I was struck by his nuance, his great capacity for empathy, and his ability to evoke deep emotions without any sort of stylistic grandstanding.

As a script, Wind River is a masterfully told story that manages to smuggle in social commentary while behaving all the while like a police procedural. The beauty of it all is the social commentary never stops the movie. Sheridan never stops the story to have characters deliver a special  message via monologues. All is in service of the story.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a hunter for the Fish and Wildlife department in Wyoming. The reservation calls him whenever there are predators attacking the livestock or causing damage to the property. From the moment we are introduced to Cory Lambert, there is a great sadness about him.

When he goes to pick up his son Casey (Teo Briones) on the way to the reservation, we meet his ex-wife Wilma (Julia Jones). The film hints at the loss of a daughter, Emily. Jones and Renner convince us that there once was great affection and passion between the two. There’s an awkwardness there that comes from knowing someone so fully that it becomes embarrassing to look at each other when you drift apart.

Cory and Casey head to the local reservation, where Cory is told there are mountain lions attacking the steer. The owner of the property, Dan (Apesanahkwat), leads him to the steer. Cory then tracks the mountain lion  from there. He stumbles upon the frozen corpse of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow). He reports the body to the tribal police, led by Ben (Graham Greene).

Listen to the free and easy way the three men talk. They talk in shorthand and with a familiar comfort. Dan tells Cory it’s a mountain lion and even tells him what the tracks mean. Cory knows this, but this is Sheridan telling us that Cory isn’t the ‘greatest tracker’ in the land. He’s just the one who does it for a job.

Ben notifies the F.B.I. who send Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Banner arrives unprepared for the harsh Wyoming climate and even more unprepared for life on the reservation. There’s a fun little exchange as Jane tries to explain to Ben, Dan, and Cory who she is and where she’s from while she’s clearly freezing and they’re clearly not.

After examining the body, she sends it to the local medical examiner. While talking to Cory, she realizes she is out of her depth and recruits his help. “I’m just a hunter. I hunt predators.” Banner replies, “That’s what I’m asking you to do.” He agrees and an uneasy alliance forms.

Olsen’s Banner is never really comfortable. She’s young, obviously new, and she finds herself in a land with a people she does not fully understand. She’s from Ft. Lauderdale, after all. She is nonplussed when Dr. Whitehurst (Eric Lange), the medical examiner, says he can’t rule the death as a homicide.

It’s clear that Natalie was bludgeoned and raped, but she died from frozen blood in her lungs due to the severe cold. Banner tries to explain that the F.B.I. won’t send any other agents unless it’s labeled a homicide. Whitehurst understands, and he’s happy to corroborate, but he can’t list her cause of death as a homicide. Jane is beside herself.

Natalie’s murder will most likely go unsolved without more help. “Chief, you have six officers in charge of an area the size of Rhode Island.” Ben nods. “You’re not telling me something I don’t already know.” So she stays.

Graham Greene is on par with John Goodman. Whenever he pops up, I’m always deliriously happy. He has a marvelous talent for always appearing to be the same person while always being a different character. His Ben has a great warmth mixed with a cynical bitterness. He is a man eaten away by his years as a tribal policeman.

What unfolds is a searing portrait of pain, loss, and love. Sheridan uses the Wyoming landscape both as a backdrop and an allegory for the harshness of life on the reservation. There’s also a great anger underlying the whole movie.

The anger is a low simmer. It never overwhelms the movie, but it’s always there. When Cory, Jane, and Ben visit Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham), there is a quiet rage within him. It’s here we learn that Cory and Martin know each other. Natalie and Emily were friends. Now, both are gone.

Gil Birmingham was the best thing about Hell or High Water. Here, he holds his own against Jeremy Renner and, at times, blows him off the screen. Yet, there’s no volcanic emotional blow up. His performance is small, terse, and deeply effective.

Wind River unfolds not like a mystery but like life. There are no clues or forensic evidence. There is only Ben, Cory, Jane, and the reservation.

Sheridan manages to allow the tension to unfold gradually. At one point, Jane knocks on a trailer door. Sheridan cuts to the inside and we see a man washing the shaving cream off his face. He hears the knocking and opens the door to reveal Natalie.

We now know the man is Matt (Jon Bernthal), Natalie’s boyfriend. His body was also found, though we never saw his face. We’re in a flashback. With a gnawing terror in our gut, we realize we’re about to see their last night on earth.

Sheridan does all this with just a simple cut. What follows is a tender, sweet moment that evolves into a drunken nightmare. At the root of the nightmare is the fact that Natalie is not perceived as a woman, but as barely a person at all.

Throughout the movie, Jane herself struggles with being perceived as a person or, at the very least, someone with authority. Take the scene a few moments earlier where Ben and Jane lead a team of officers to Security camp to interview some witnesses. One of the visiting officers seems to ignore Jane completely. He’s asking questions over her, drawing his firearm, and escalating the situation.

Even Cory seems to ignore her authority at times, although this is largely due to his personal mission to hunt down the people responsible for Natalie’s death. Men tend to bristle at women authority figures no matter how confident or not they may be.

The only weak spot may be Olsen. She’s too young. At least, she appears too young for the role, or so I thought at the beginning. I never fully bought her as an F.B.I. agent. As the movie wore on, I found myself bothered by this less and less. By the end, I found myself liking her performance quite a bit.

There are parts where Sheridan seems to lose confidence and uses underlying music to tell us how we feel. Yet, at other parts,  the score evokes a haunting sadness that stays with us for great lengths throughout the movie.

Renner as Cory gives quite possibly one of the best performances of his career. I’ve never been a big fan of his. I’ve always found him kind of bland. Here though, he manages to play the trope of ‘wounded hero with great man pain’ with authenticity. He never plays Cory as a white savior or as a wanna be Native. He understands that while he is a part of the community he will never be part OF the community.

Despite all the gloom and sadness, there is satisfaction in the movie’s conclusion as well as the final scene– which may be one of the best final scenes I’ve seen all year. There is a simplicity in its composition. However, in the words exchanged between Martin and Cory, there is a great emotional and cultural depth that is expressed and mourned.

The dialogue has a wonderful naturalness and flow to it. It evokes a deep sense of grief and anger with astonishing elegiac beauty. Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River is so good, it’s almost great– and I’m not entirely sure it isn’t already.

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company

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