Wind River

There are dozens of crime thrillers that reach the marketplace every year. Most of them are forgettable, sometimes there is a prestigious director or novel behind the film, but it takes something unique to pull me into a theater to see those films. The small ones usually slip by and that is sometimes unfortunate because there might be something worthy in them that I just don’t know about. I still need to catch up with “Sicario” from two years ago, a film that was written by the writer/director of this movie. I did see “Hell or High Water” the most recent of Taylor Sheridan’s screenplays to get made intro a film. It was my favorite film of last year, a position it took over the more I watched it. That film is the first reason I drove the 35 miles down to Hollywood to see “Wind River”.
Mosaic Electronic Poster at the Hollywood Arclight.

Mosaic Electronic Poster at the Hollywood Arclight

A second reason I was intrigued by the film is that it is set in a location that I have visited frequently over the last few years. Lander, Wyoming is a small town in the middle of the state, it is surrounded by the Wind River Indian Reservation. While I have been to the two tribal casinos in the area, I have no first hand experience with life on a reservation, and the problems that the native American populations have to face. One of my friends who lives in Lander does know something of this because the school program she is a director for has numerous children from the reservations attending. They often come from homes where there are drug problems. My contact is superficial but I do know the terrain a bit, and even though my visits have all been in comfortable weather, I can see how the desolate areas can be foreboding in the chill of a snowstorm or long winter. I have often said to my friends when we visit, that their home in in the middle of nowhere, and you’d have to drive two hours to find a location that you can see somewhere from.

With that background, let’s talk about the story briefly and consider some of the themes that it presents. A young woman is running a best she can through the night, in the cold of Wyoming near the end of Winter. Her body is discovered by a Department of Fish and Wildlife hunter, who works eliminating predators which threaten the agricultural industry from the area. Jeremy Renner is a face people know, he is an accomplished actor and has some star power that he brings to the film. It may be that because he has been in the “Avengers” films, people forget what a fine actor he really is. He was solid in last year’s “Arrival”, but Amy Adams was the star of that film. In this movie he is extraordinary playing a man who is fairly ordinary, except for the job he does so well. The part also starts us at one of the points this film is making. It is hard to get some things done when you have multiple governmental agencies involved and the jurisdictional questions sometimes seem to outnumber the real problems that people face. The County Law Enforcement Agency is limited because the woman who died was found on the Indian territory. This makes it a Tribal Police matter, but there are Federal Crimes that might be involved as well and those help bring in FBI Agent Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen is also a veteran of the MCU, and she is relatively young which cuts two ways. Her youth suggests limited experience, a complaint about the Federal help the Tribal police get. Her young age also strains credulity somewhat, since it seems she might not come across as the kind of person to be a special agent in charge. If I have a criticism of the film, it is the way in which her character has been written. She is out of her depth and makes significant mistakes, which basically repeat twice in the course of the investigation. It is also her attitude about the circumstances that provides heart to the story. She reacts to events they way many of us outsiders might; with confusion, pity and a sense of frustration.

The procedural elements of the story are not complex and the effort to track down the perpetrators does benefit from Renner’s character’s expertise at tracking in the desolate countryside. The mismatched and slightly awkward partnership is found in a thousand of these crime based films. This however is not really a “buddy cop” movie. The point of the story concerns the lack of control that any of the characters face in an official capacity contrasted to the degree of control they have in their professional expertise. Jane banner is limited by Federal guidelines, Graham Green who plays the Tribal Police Chief is constrained by the jurisdiction of the Reservation, even the medical examiner is limited in how a death report can be summarized. The environment has clearly created the situation where a death such as the victim faced, might not ever get an answer. The frigid open spaces and narrow bureaucratic red tape ultimately is going to be conquered by Renner, the one person who is not a law enforcement agent. Cory Lambert, Renner’s character, does have his own motivations for helping out, and those parts of his back story are a couple of the spots where his acting skills get a chance to shine.

If you want tension and action, let me tell you there are two excellent sequences that have plenty of the violence and brutality that you seek. There is also a scene that explains what happened which is cleverly inserted as a non-sequential insert at just the right spot, be forewarned though, it is unpleasant to witness. Olsen’s character may have some flaws as written, but the emotions she reflects are just right. Her ability to empathize with the victims and her recognition that sometimes she is culturally in over her head, are both believable because of her performance. Two Native American actors that have become very familiar over the years also bring some heart and reality to the film. Graham Greene has played police officers before, but his Tribal Officer in this film is low key and world weary, but still has a sense of duty and humor. Gil Birmingham, who starred with Greene in some of the “Twilight” movies plays the distraught father of the woman who died. His role is not as significant as his co-starring turn in “Hell or High Water”, but he has some very solid moments that also tell us about the frustrations of the culture these characters inhabit.

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The other star of the film is the great outdoors. The spectacular vistas are wonderful to see but we also know how deadly the places can be. There is loneliness everywhere and the ennui that surrounds the inhabitants of the sparsely populated areas here can be overwhelming. Town is one thing, but most of these people are not in a town, they are trapped in spaces that are too small for the vastness of the wilderness around them. Whether this conditions drive you to violence, drug addiction or hopelessness, there is a very clear double edged sword that the environment presents. This film is getting a fairly small release, but if word of mouth is good, it is likely to be expanded and maybe the film will get an opportunity to grow. I hope you make an effort to see this picture and that you encourage others to do so as well. This is the sort of film making which needs a little TLC.

Hell or High Water

It may be a little early for Awards forecasting, but my dopler has been keen a couple of times in the last five or six years so I might as well take a shot with this film. I see at least two strong acting contenders and a screenplay nomination that will depend on what opens between now and the end of the year. This is easily the most Award worthy film I’ve seen this year so far and I am giving it my highest recommendation. If is manages to get to a theater in your neck of the woods, you should go and see it. It is not perfect in plotting but the dialogue is fantastic and the spine of the story is compelling and relevant.

 

We don’t exactly know why, but two brothers are on a mission to rob a series of bank branches that belong to a local institution in Texas. The robberies are planned and there is a definite element of thinking to the strategy, but in execution, the robbers appear to be less than sharp.  The Texas Rangers become involved and a wily soon to be retired investigator has his own theories about how to flush the criminals out. That’s as much of the plot as I’m willing to give up because there are some surprises along the way that you will not want to have spoiled for you. The context of hard times and the stubborn independent streak of West Texas make the film feel fresh in a dozen different places. There is much humor in the film but some of it will seem politically incorrect and might irritate SJW. There is a sense that things are not as they should be and that is partially due to race and class. In the end we are going to be conflicted because both sides in the conflict have given us something to root for.

 

There are three parallel relationships that keep our interest in the film, let’s take them one at a time. First the two brothers in the movie could not be more dissimilar.  Chris Pine plays Toby Howard, the younger, very handsome brother who has always been a straight arrow, if not always a success. His older brother Tanner is a wild child, disowned by his mother, convicted by the state of various crimes, and probably guilty of patricide. Ben Foster has been an actor in the periphery of stardom for more than a decade. His Charlie Prince in the remake of ” 3:10 to Yuma”  was a flashy part but not big enough to score with critics groups. This part should change that. Tanner is a truculent loser with a sense of self that is humorous at times and frightening in other moments. The two brothers bicker, reminisce, and joke with one another like brothers might. They have not always been close but they understand each other really well. Pine is excellent but his role is the less flashy of the two, and Tanner has some of the best one liners in the film. Both my daughter and I laughed hard at his umbrage when his brother tries to substitute Mr. Pibb for Dr. Pepper. He may not be the smart one, but he is the spark plug that makes this story compelling.

 

The second relationship that is important to our appreciation of the film is the partnership between the two Texas Rangers on the trail of the pair. Gil Birmingham is Alberto Parker, a Native American in the most cowboy job a guy can have. His partner is old timer Marcus Hamilton, a laid back Jeff Bridges. Marcus goes by instinct and cleverness. Alberto is the more traditional Ranger who sees tweekers  behind most of the crimes they investigate. It seems that these two are friends most of the time but the jabs they give one another are sometimes done without the sarcastic smile that would indicate that the speaker does not really mean what they are saying. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has a ear for what is real and what is tense.Their conversations range all over the place but are deepest when looking at the changing roles of different groups in Texas. Both of them know when they have been put in their place by a local waitress with definite ideas of what it is they should be ordering to eat. The importance of this relationship is what sets up the last of the three major pairings in the film.

Toby and Marcus are the third side of this triangle of male relationships. Bridges is using his gruff mumbling voice in this film, a lot like he did in the dud “R.I.P.D.” from a few years ago. In that film the character was overdone but in this film the quirks are perfectly balanced with the thoughtfulness of the character. The gravel in the voice is less affectation and more earned. The climax of the film will surprise some people but not fans of 1970s films. The unfulfilled confrontation between the two smart guys in the film is some of the best character dialogue you will hear in movies these days. Bridges and Foster are exterior performances which is why they will get deserving notice but that should not overshadow Pine who becomes a better actor each time he is in a film. His work in this final scene will prove that to anyone willing to watch.

There were times in the film when I was reminded of watching one of those car chase films from the seventies. Not the cartoon ones in “Smokey and the Bandit” but the existential films like “Vanishing Point” or even “Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary”.  The characters success or failure in the chase was not just a visceral thrill but a moment of significance to the story. The cat and mouse game being played in this film is for big stakes, and we can empathize with each side since they both take significant losses. Also like a 70s film, the scenes develop and build they don’t simply start with a climax and show that. There is purpose behind all of the things that happen in the film. Having made the choice they did, the two brothers story plays out as it must, a tragedy and a double edged success. Bridges stands as the looming figure in the lives of the two brothers, and his quiet, ominous demeanor, is one of the great pleasures of this film.

They don’t make Westerns much anymore and the old saying is they “don’t make them like they used to”. Well “Hell or High Water” is both a Western and made like they used to make them. It is thoughtful, violent, clever and performed at a level that will please audiences substantially. I could hear today’s crowd react several times to moments in the film. They do so because they become invested in the characters. That sort of character driven story is hard to come by in the fast paced action films of the day. This movie will provide the opportunity to follow a story, care about all of the main players, and sit in suspense as we wait for the final moments. You will be hearing about this one again. Make sure you are ready to talk about it by seeing it.