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.

DVD/Stream of the Week: SMOKE SIGNALS – Native American roadtrip to laughs and a long-buried secret

Evan Adams and Adam Beach in SMOKE SIGNALS

The smart and bitingly funny dramedy Smoke Signals is a film about Native Americans written and directed by Native Americans.  Evans Adams plays Thomas Builds-the-Fire, an Indian nerd, a character type almost certainly unique in cinema.  Adam Beach plays his oft-surly friend Victor.  The two had contrasting relationships with Victor’s father, who has recently died.  Thomas and Victor embark on a road trip to unearth a family secret.

Smoke Signals was written with an acerbic wit and is often downright uproarious. The laugh lines are as funny as in any screwball comedy: Sometimes it’s a good day to die, and sometimes it’s a good day to have breakfast. One of the high points is a rendition of the original song John Wayne’s Teeth.

As Thomas and Victor banter, we get to glimpse inside both Indian Country and mainstream culture from the Indian point of view. Smoke Signals unflinchingly takes on alcoholism and other issues within the Native American community, as well as resentment of how Native Americans are treated by the dominant American culture.

Adam Beach and Evan Adams in SMOKE SIGNALS

Smoke Signals’s screenplay was written by Sherman Alexie, based on his own novel. Alexie set the core of the story on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation on which he grew up. It was directed in 1997 by then 28-year-old Chris Eyre. Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho, has since directed the Native American-themed Skins and Edge of America, along with episode of Friday Night Lights and American Experience.

Adams is hysterically funny as Thomas, and Beach is a capable straight man. Smoke Signals also features the fine Native Canadian actor and actress Gary Farmer and Tantoo Cardinal and the Native American actress Irene Bedard. Michele St. John and Elaine Miles are very funny as Victor and Thomas’ reservation friends Velma and Lucy.

The film won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Smoke Signals is available on DVD from Netflix and 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.