Wind River (Sheridan; 2017)

The Western as a film genre pokes its head out every now and then every few years, but it’s been done as a regular Hollywood staple for roughly half a century.  For the past three years, however, Taylor Sheridan has been slyly bringing the genre back with a modern twist.  The Western takes on many forms, but it always takes place in the American West, of course, and it focuses on white men taming a frontier they are new to.  Once white civilization has taken over a territory, the film focusing on that place can no longer be called a Western.  Taylor Sheridan’s films all take place in rural Western communities, the twist being that these communities are in areas which have long since been tamed, but they are now largely overlooked.  In his film debut as a writer (Sheridan has been an actor for a long time) he gave us Sicario, the modern take on the Federales vs Banditos Western.  The next year he gave us Hell or High Water which is the modern retelling of the sheriff vs outlaws story.  Now, he writes and directs the classic cowboys and Indians Western, Wind River.

Wind River‘s central character is a Department of Fish, Game, and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert played (Jeremy Renner).  He describes his job as hunting predators, and while doing his job hunting down a trio of mountain lions who killed one of his father-in-law’s cattle he comes across the body of a young girl from the nearby Wind River Reservation where his father-in-law lives.  After notifying the authorities, Cory finds himself working with the reservation’s Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, which means, yes, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are the two main characters in the film).  Jane is new enough to the FBI that she doesn’t really know how to handle the situation, but smart and self aware enough to realize this and convinces Cory to work the case with her by asking him to help her by doing his job and hunt down a predator.  It seems Cory has personal reasons to help, as well, and solving the murder mystery becomes the driving force of Wind River‘s plot, if not really the heart of its story.

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In Sicario Sheridan tells a story in which the law are just as corrupt as the criminals they are hunting, and the only difference between the two is who is pulling the organizational strings.  Hell or High Water shows us the banks being robbed are far more immoral and dangerous than the criminals doing the robbery, and even those on the side of the law are aware of this.  Wind River gives us a brutal metaphor which barely even counts as metaphor due to its lack of subtlety of how white civilization has treated the Native Americans since they were conquered and forced onto reservations.  He is intelligent enough to not make matters so black and white (no pun intended) than one side is completely sympathetic and the other completely despicable, but this modern cowboy and Indians story shows what affect 100 years plus of brutality and neglect by one group to another can have on the group on the receiving end of said neglect.

Sheridan’s script is up to his normal insanely high standards.  In addition to a plot which is gripping and meaningful he also serves up authentic but still engaging dialogue.  His metaphors will be a bit too much on the nose for some tastes, however, I don’t think the thematic elements of a story have to be subtle to be effective, and here Sheridan makes sure you can’t ignore his message.  The characters he creates are never stereotypes nor generalities, and that is still the case here as he gives us real three dimensional people with pasts which resonate strongly through their goals and actions, and he makes sure we understand why even the most despicable among them, and he gives us some of his most despicable characters to date in Wind River, act the way they do.

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The direction, however, is not up to the usual near perfection of a Taylor Sheridan film as Sheridan himself decided to direct this one and not hand off the reins to someone else, and while he is an excellent apparently natural talent, his lack of experience does show in a few areas.  The pacing is a bit off at times, showing that Sheridan most likely had a hard time editing himself, a very common mistake made by writer/directors.  The camera work, too, is on the basic side as conversations between people tend to devolve into scenes where the camera shoots whichever character is speaking at a mid-distance, then switches to the other person when they speak, and back and forth until the conversation ends.  Some of his shots of nature, however, can be quite spectacular, and the contrast between functional but dull and beautiful can actually add to the pacing problems felt from the not perfect editing.

The acting is also excellent for the most part, with most of the actors doing justice to the excellent script.  The minor roles, however, can be performed amateurishly breaking the story’s flow at times when a performance not quite up to the same snuff as the others stands out.  Still, if a character has a name, then the actor portraying that character is excellent, and this may in fact be the best performances of both Renner’s and Olsen’s careers.

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Final verdict:  Taylor Sheridan gave us one of the best films of 2015 and of 2016. and so far Wind River is absolutely one of the best films of 2017, though it is just a bit more flawed than his previous two efforts.  Sheridan has proven himself that he is one of the greatest working screen writers, and while it is only a matter of time before he wins an Oscar if he keeps going at this rate, this year will not be the one.  Wind River does not quite reach the must see status of Sicario and Hell or High Water, but it is still absolutely fantastic, and I will bump it up to must see status if you, like me, find great writing to be the best element of film making.  No matter your general tastes or inclinations, though, Wind River is an amazing film that should be seen, it just may be worth waiting until you can rent it to do so.

 

 

The Eagle Huntress (Bell; 2016)

In the mountainous wastelands of Mongolia live groups of nomadic tribesmen that have passed down the secret of bonding with and training the eagles that live in these harsh conditions to hunt the arctic animals indigenous to the area for food and fur so they can survive the brutal winters.  These secrets for generations have been passed down from father to son, but when the patriarch of the Kazakh family sees that his young daughter Aisolpan is a natural drawn to the art of eagle hunting he breaks with tradition and decides to train her.  He invites scorn and resistance from the elders of all the local tribes.  If this sounds like a fairly conventional story with the only truly unique take being the involvement of eagle hunting, you would mostly be correct, but this story has one more major difference – it’s not fictional, this is a documentary.

The first thing that needs to be said about The Eagle Huntress is that it is absolutely gorgeous.  The landscapes, while barren and harsh, are nonetheless beautiful to look at, the cinematography is artful and I can’t imagine how much footage had to have been taken and pored through to find a movie that looks as if every shot was planned and posed even when you know that can’t have been the case most of the time considering the subject matter, and the eagles themselves are truly awesome to see in action.  While I was given a real glimpse into their life, and saw the harsh conditions these people live in every day, the beauty of this movie and the connection these people still in this time manage to have with the nature around them made me wish I could be an eagle hunter.

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A connection with nature so intense, the people and the birds start to look alike.

The Eagle Huntress is also a story about the overcoming of long held prejudices.  Even the most far away tribespeople who have clung to long held traditions cannot escape the culture of the modern world, for better or for worse, and the changing of mindsets toward “the fairer and weaker sex” is spreading even to the remote area of Bayan-Olgii.  People can look at a young girl and recognize her as something more than a person who will be raised to cook, have babies, and care for the household while the men are off hunting (in fact, I believe the movie tricks us slightly as to how resistant men are to the idea of Aisholpan learning to hunt with eagles, but more on that in a little bit).  Aisholpan’s father doesn’t care that she’s a girl, he just cares that she’s been staring at the eagles her whole life and recognizes that she has a natural bond with them and decides that she is to carry on his legacy with no thought to anything else other than her happiness and her talent.  To see this bond between father and daughter, to see her confidence nurtured by her supportive family and her own natural talent, and to see her put to bed all doubts that a girl can do the same thing generations of only men before her can is the real heart of this piece.

I admit to having a few doubts as to the authenticity of the implied level of resistance to Aisholpan’s training that people feel throughout the film.  We are told over and over again that people would react harshly to her and that she would have to prove herself above and beyond what any man could do, but aside from a few harsh glances here and there and some raised eyebrows and quick laughs, most of the people in the film actually seem more intrigued and impressed with Aisholpan’s abilities than angry and resistant.  I wonder if the producers of the film just didn’t feel there was enough story without some form of antagonist, and so cut film and perhaps even staged a small handful of scenes in order to give the illusion that there was more anger at what Aisholpan and father were doing than actually existed.  I have no doubt that there were plenty of people with a “girls can’t and shouldn’t do this” attitude, but in the more obviously candid parts of the film I never saw much indication that people held much, if any, contempt toward Aisholpan or her father and actually seemed quite helpful and impressed.  While I don’t know for sure, I think the anger toward Aisholpan was mostly manufactured for dramatic purposes, and maybe to add to the girl power themes present in the film, and if that’s the case it really is too bad, as the story of a 13 year-old girl capturing, training, and hunting with an eagle in this incredibly harsh terrain is drama and girl power story enough on its own, in this critic’s opinion.

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Or maybe the outrage is real, and people just couldn’t tell Aisholpan was a girl right away underneath all those layers.

Often, the best documentaries aren’t those that teach a lesson or give a point of view, but manage to capture just the right slice of life at just the right time to give us a story as dramatic as the best fictions.  The Eagle Huntress is a coming of age story, a man vs nature story, a story about girl power and overcoming prejudices, a feel good movie, and a family drama all rolled into one, all with gorgeous images to look at and a fascinating culture to learn about.  And, the eagles, the majestic, gorgeous eagles that are so breath taking I don’t care that this is an incomplete sentence.

Rating:  8.0 out of 10