Stream of the Week: WIND RIVER – another masterpiece from Taylor Sheridan

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

With the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has delivered another masterpiece, this time in his first effort as director. Wind River was probably my most anticipated film of the year because I pegged Sheridan’s previous movie Hell or High Water as the best movie of 2016. Wind River doesn’t disappoint and is one of the best movies of 2017.

The story is set in and around Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Cory (Jeremy Renner) is a professional hunter who finds the body of a native American teenage girl. To find out what happened to her and who is responsible, the tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) calls for help from the feds. That assistance arrives in the form of FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), an inexperienced city slicker who has no clue how to survive in the lethal elements of the wild country. She is canny enough to understand that she needs the help of Cory, who knows every inch of the back country. He has his own reason – very important to the story – to solve the mystery, and the unlikely duo embark on a dangerous investigation, which they know will end in a man hunt.

The man hunt leads to a violent set piece that Sheridan directs masterfully. There’s a sudden escalation of tension, then apparent relief and then an explosion of action. Deadly chaos envelops several characters, but we’re able to follow it all clearly, while we’re on the edges of our seats.

Jeremy Renner’s performance as Cory is brilliant. Cory is a man whose life has been redirected by a family tragedy. He’s a Western stoic of few words, but – unusual for his type – an individual who deals with his grief in a very specific and self-aware way. Playing a character who reloads his own rounds, Renner is able to deliver hard-ass, determined efficiency along with some unexpected tenderness.

Olsen is also very good as Jane who understands that she may appear to be the bottom of the FBI’s barrel because she is a woman and very green and tiny. Resolute and spunky, she moves past what others might take as a slight because no unaided outsider is going to be able to navigate the harsh environment and the culture of the reservation. She isn’t trying to make a name for herself, but just to take responsibility in the old-fashioned way that we would expect from characters played by Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. She’s got to do the right thing.

As Martin, the dead girl’s father, Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water) has two unforgettable scenes. His first scene is phenomenal first scene, as he processes the worst possible news with an outside Jane, and then with his friend Cory. Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal are also excellent. Kelsey Asbille and Jon Bernthal are also stellar in a flashback of the crime.

Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) make great use of the Big Sky country, with the jagged topography of its mountains and the feral frigidity of its forests. Wind River opens as Cory hunts in spectacular postcard scenery; when we first see the reservation, we are jarred – this is a very bad place.

Taylor Sheridan has a gift for writing great, great movie dialogue:

      “Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

     “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own.”

When Cory says, “This isn’t about Emily”, we know that this is precisely about Emily. When Cory says, “I’m a hunter”, we know exactly what his intentions are – and so does Martin.

Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable. He has explored that theme in Sicario, Hell or High Water and now Wind River. Wind River begins with a title explaining that the story is inspired by actual events, and ends with a particularly horrifying non-statistic.  I’ve also written an essay on Sheridan’s filmmaking signatures, the films of Tayler Sheridan.

Smart, layered and intelligent, Wind River is another success from one of America’s fastest-rising filmmakers. It’s now available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

WIND RIVER: another masterpiece from Taylor Sheridan

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

With the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has delivered another masterpiece, this time in his first effort as director. Wind River was probably my most anticipated film of the year because I pegged Sheridan’s previous movie Hell or High Water as the best movie of 2016Wind River doesn’t disappoint.

The story is set in and around Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation.  Cory (Jeremy Renner) is a professional hunter who finds the body of a native American teenage girl.  To find out what happened to her and who is responsible, the tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) calls for help from the feds.  That assistance arrives in the form of FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), an inexperienced city slicker who has no clue how to survive in the lethal elements of the wild country.  She is canny enough to understand that she needs the help of Cory, who knows every inch of the back country.  He has his own reason – very important to the story – to solve the mystery, and the unlikely duo embark on a dangerous investigation, which they know will end in a man hunt.

The man hunt leads to a violent set piece that Sheridan directs masterfully.  There’s a sudden escalation of tension, then apparent relief and then an explosion of action.  Deadly chaos envelops several characters, but we’re able to follow it all clearly, while we’re on the edges of our seats.

Jeremy Renner’s performance as Cory is brilliant.  Cory is a man whose life has been redirected by a family tragedy.  He’s a Western stoic of few words, but – unusual for his type – an individual who deals with his grief in a very specific and self-aware way.  Playing a character who reloads his own rounds, Renner is able to deliver hard-ass, determined efficiency along with some unexpected tenderness.

Olsen is also very good as Jane who understands that she may appear to be the bottom of the FBI’s barrel because she is a woman and very green and tiny.  Resolute and spunky, she moves past what others might take as a slight because no unaided outsider is going to be able to navigate the harsh environment and the culture of the reservation.  She isn’t trying to make a name for herself, but just to take responsibility in the old-fashioned way that we would expect from characters played by Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  She’s got to do the right thing.

As Martin, the dead girl’s father, Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water) has two unforgettable scenes. His first scene is phenomenal first scene, as he processes the worst possible news with an outside Jane, and then with his friend Cory.   Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal are also excellent.   Kelsey Asbille and Jon Bernthal are also stellar in a flashback of the crime.

Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) make great use of the Big Sky country, with the jagged topography of its mountains and the feral frigidity of its forests.  Wind River opens as Cory hunts in spectacular postcard scenery; when we first see the reservation, we are jarred  – this is a very bad place.

Taylor Sheridan has a gift for writing great, great movie dialogue:

      “Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

      “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane.  This is the land of you’re on your own.”

When Cory says, “This isn’t about Emily”, we know that this is precisely about Emily.  When Cory says, “I’m a hunter”, we know exactly what his intentions are – and so does Martin.

Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable. He has explored that theme in Sicario, Hell or High Water and now Wind River. Wind River begins with a title explaining that the story is inspired by actual events, and ends with a particularly horrifying non-statistic.

Smart, layered and intelligent, Wind River is another success from one of America’s fastest-rising filmmakers.

Coming up on TV: a feast of crime movies

BULLITT

Here’s a treat – on November 26, Turner Classic Movies is celebrating Cops and Robbers with a feast of crime movies. I especially recommend:

  • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): A criminal mastermind (Robert Shaw) and his gang of commandos capture a NYC subway train and ransom the passengers; the transit authority police commander (Walter Matthau) must match wits.  Excellent cast includes Hector Elizondo and Martin Balsam.  I prefer this original to the 2009 remake.
  • Every police procedural from 1948 through today’s Law and Order and CSI owes something to the prototypical The Naked City (1948). Tenacious New York City cops solve a murder amid gritty streets and shady characters. Unusual for the time, it was shot on location.   Directed by noir great Jules Dassin, The Naked City won Oscars for black and white cinematography and film editing.
  • Bullitt (1968) features Steve McQueen and one of cinema’s most iconic and influential chase scenesMcQueen’s 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback  and the bad guy’s 1968 Dodge Charger careen through San Francisco, taking almost 11 minutes to race from Fisherman’s Wharf to Brisbane.  Classic.
  • The French make really good crime dramas, and Rififi (1955) is a standard-setting heist filmAfter the team is assembled and the job is plotted, the actual crime unfolds in real-time – over thirty minutes of nerve wracking silence.
  • In The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the crooks assemble a team and pull off the big heist…and then things begin to go wrong.  There aren’t many noirs with better casting – the crooks include Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe and James Whitmore.  The 23-year-old Marilyn Monroe plays Calhern’s companion in her first real speaking part.  How noir is it? Even the cop who breaks the case goes to jail.  Directed by the great John Huston.
  • If you like your film noir tawdry, then Gun Crazy (1950) is for you.  Peggy Cummins plays a prototypical Bad Girl who takes her newlywed hubby on a crime spree.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

DVD/Stream of the Week: The Iceman

Michel Shannon in THE ICEMAN

The Iceman is based on the true story of Richard Kuklinski, a New Jersey hitman said to have killed at least 100 (and possibly more than 250) people over thirty years until 1985. Besides his prolific trail of carnage, the most interesting aspect of The Iceman is its take on Kuklinski’s personality and its portrayal by Michael Shannon.

Shannon’s Kuklinski deeply loves his wife and daughters – and is psychotically indifferent to the fate of any other human (even his own). To him, killing another person is as unencumbered by morality or emotion as delivering a pizza or fixing a muffler. His “Iceman” nickname derives from his practice of freezing his victims and dumping their bodies months later – so investigators could not fix the time of death. But “Iceman” just as aptly applies to Kuklinski’s fearlessness and utter lack of empathy.

Ever since Shotgun Stories, Michael Shannon has been one of my favorite actors. He’s perfect for Kuklinski, because Shannon can combine impassivity and intensity like no one else. He can also use his hulking frame to enhance his menace (or, in Mud, his goofiness).

His fellow actors – including Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta and David Schwimmer – do a fine job. I particularly enjoyed Chris Evans as fellow hitman Mr. Freezy, who works out of his ice cream truck. Because I don’t watch superhero movies, I was unaware that Evans has recently starred as Captain America in The Avengers and as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies.

The Iceman is a solid true-life crime movie with an outstanding performance by Michael Shannon.  The Iceman is available on DVD from both Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, GooglePlay, YouTube and other purveyors of VOD.

Gideon’s Army: Sisyphus goes to court

GIDEON'S ARMY

Gideon’s Army, another gem from HBO’s fine summer documentary series, explores the work of public defenders in the South.  By defending indigent criminal defendants, these lawyers preserve the American legal principles of fair trials and the presumption of innocence.   But the game is rigged against them – they are starkly under-resourced and, in the South, face shockingly high bail requirements and extremely severe mandatory sentencing laws.  Each responsible for 120-150 cases at a time, they suffer long hours and low pay, defending the mostly guilty – a recipe for burnout.  One PD even has had one client who planned to murder her in open court.

To tell this Sisyphean story, Gideon’s Army focuses on a handful of public defenders and their cases.  There’s probably more optimism in the film than in real life (which is necessary, because a more realistic depiction would probably be depressingly unwatchable).    It’s an important subject and a good watch.  Gideon’s Army is currently playing on HBO.

The Iceman: one cold dude

Michel Shannon in THE ICEMAN

The Iceman is based on the true story of Richard Kuklinski,  a New Jersey hitman said to have killed at least 100 (and possibly more than 250) people over thirty years until 1985.  Besides his prolific trail of carnage, the most interesting aspect of The Iceman is its take on Kuklinski’s personality and its portrayal by Michael Shannon.  

Shannon’s Kuklinski deeply loves his wife and daughters – and is psychotically indifferent to the fate of any other human (even his own).  To him, killing another person is as unencumbered by morality or emotion as delivering a pizza or fixing a muffler.  His “Iceman” nickname derives from his practice of freezing his victims and dumping their bodies months later – so investigators could not fix the time of death. But “Iceman” just as aptly applies to Kuklinski’s fearlessness and utter lack of empathy.

Ever since Shotgun Stories, Michael Shannon has been one of my favorite actors.  He’s perfect for Kuklinski, because Shannon can combine impassivity and intensity like no one else. He can also use his hulking frame to enhance his menace (or, in Mud, his goofiness).

His fellow actors – including Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta and David Schwimmer –  do a fine job.  I particularly enjoyed Chris Evans as fellow hitman Mr. Freezy, who works out of his ice cream truck. Because I don’t watch superhero movies, I was unaware that Evans has recently starred as Captain America in The Avengers and as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies.

The Iceman is a solid true-life crime movie with an outstanding performance by Michael Shannon.

DVD of the Week: Le Cercle Rouge

Can a French 1970 color film that stars cool guys like Alain Delon and Yves Montand qualify as film noir?  You bet, especially when written and directed by a master of noir like Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Samourai).

A thief gets out of prison, immediately robs his former crime boss and goes on the run.  An escaped murderer stows away in the trunk of his car.  Now they are both on the run from a very cynical and driven cop – as well as from the  gangsters.    They hire a dissolute former cop and try to pull off a heist.  The honest cop who is chasing them squeezes a shady nightclub owner to betray them.

There’s a chase and shootings and a heist that takes up the final 30 minutes, but Le Cercle Rouge is not about the action.  It’s about the nature of these characters, guys who live by their own codes.  They know what they’re gonna do, and they don’t need to think about why.  There’s minimal dialogue, and they look and act really cool for all 140 minutes.

Criterion has just released Le Cercle Rouge on DVD.  Take a look.  Here’s the trailer in French.