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.

 

 

Hell or High Water (Mackenzie; 2016)

One of the most criminally overlooked films at awards ceremonies in 2015 was Sicario.  While Sicario did not win a single award and was never even nominated for Best Picture, though it was certainly deserving, it was nominated on 10 separate occasions at 10 separate awards programs for Best Original Screenplay.  The writer of that screenplay was one Taylor Sheridan, and one year later he’s showing us that his first screenplay was not a fluke and loudly announcing with Hell or High Water that we had best get used to hearing his name at those ceremonies year after year for the forseeable future.

Hell or High Water features Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers on a bank robbing spree across rural West Texas and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, the Texas Rangers partners out to find and put a stop to them.  All four of these men are at the top of their game giving us four characters who are likable, sympathetic, flawed, surprising, and most of all, real.  For Jeff Bridges, this is a performance we’ve come to expect, though he outdoes even himself here, and for the other three we get to see some truly break out performances from three men who have until now been known more for being pretty than for being talented.

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Are you trying to say I’m not pretty, asshole?

The West Texas scenery is filmed gorgeously, and makes what could have  been a well done, but more or less typical crime thriller into a modern day Western in which you can believe that in the 21st Century there are still swathes of the American West still waiting for someone to come settle them (steal them) and that there can still be cowboys riding around in an untamed frontier.  It’s great to see a modern film that looks gorgeous and doesn’t have to rely at all on special effects to get the job done, but just excellent camera work and old fashioned art direction.

David Mackenzie gives us nearly perfect direction in Hell or High Water.  Not only does he manage to get the best performances of their lives out of his main cast of actors, but he also gets us a film that relies a great deal on dialogue and quiet visuals to still have the pacing and tension of an action movie.  It seems like not a second is wasted, but the movie still has time to spend on small details which add so much to the overall experience.  Mackenzie knew exactly what to cut and keep, how long to hold a shot, and when it was more important to focus on story and when on character.

The greatest star of Hell or Highwater, though, is the absolutely brilliant screenplay by the aforementioned Taylor Sheridan.  It gives us a script with a perfect pairing of antagonists and protagonists, not just in ability, but in theme as well.  We have characters who are mirror images of each other, we have strong themes about what makes family and what strong family ties make us willing to do for one another, and some of the crispest and wittiest dialogue you will hear this year.  It does all this without ever calling attention to itself.  You never once hear a line and think the writer is attempting to be clever or have it called to your attention that he’s attempting to make a point.  The screenplay for Hell or High Water is always subtly brilliant, but it absolutely is brilliant through and through.

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You come for the fantastic script, but you stay for the horsies.

There never has been, nor do I think there ever can be, a perfect movie.  But, I’ll be damned if I can think of any real flaws in Hell or High Water beyond what they possibly could have done, which is never a way to judge a movie.  This is  a film I recommend everyone sees, and in the theaters so you don’t miss out on the gorgeous cinematography on display.  I will double down on this statement for those who have any interest in the Oscars or Golden Globes, because if you don’t see Hell or High Water garnering multiple nominations come that season, I’ll eat a ten gallon hat.

Rating:  9.4 out of 10