Friday, August 25, 2017

In Theaters: WIND RIVER (2017)

(US/UK/France - 2017)

Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Jon Bernthal, Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, James Jordan, Hugh Dillon, Martin Sensmeier, Teo Briones, Tantoo Cardinal, Apesanahkwat, Eric Lange, Tokala Clifford, Ian Bohen. (R, 108 mins)

After scripting 2015's acclaimed SICARIO and scoring an Oscar nomination for writing the next year's HELL OR HIGH WATER, actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (SONS OF ANARCHY) scores a trifecta with WIND RIVER, which he also directed. Sheridan spent much of this year's Sundance Film Festival calling WIND RIVER his "directorial debut," and well, it's not. He directed a tardy torture porn horror film called VILE in 2012 and has been going to great and borderline absurd lengths to distance himself from it and wish it away. As SICARIO began getting accolades a couple of years ago, VILE suddenly vanished from Sheridan's IMDb page, with it then becoming the sole entry on the IMDb page of a "Taylor Sheridan (IV)" as if another Taylor Sheridan directed it. VILE is a terrible film--the worst torture porn horror flick ever, honestly--but as I pointed out in my reviews of SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER and as Film School Rejects' Joshua Coonrod detailed in his Sundance article "Why Is Taylor Sheridan Pretending Wind River Is His Directorial Debut?"  Sheridan's selective memory and his rewriting of history to keep this zombie lie alive are deceptive and blatantly dishonest. Everyone has to start somewhere and pay their dues, and sure, maybe VILE was just a job to get his feet wet, but if James Cameron can own up to PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, Matthew McConaughey to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION, and George Clooney to RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES, Taylor Sheridan can admit he made VILE. To ignore VILE, no matter how wretchedly unwatchable it is, is insulting to the cast and crew who haven't achieved Sheridan's level of success in the years since--many of them are probably still waiting tables and working retail jobs between auditions if they haven't given up on acting altogether (an exception being Ian Bohen, a VILE co-star who has a small role here)--and it paints him as some kind of instant wunderkind that he's not. There's very few instances of a Quentin Tarantino coming out of nowhere with one game-changing classic after another. In short, WIND RIVER is a terrific film, Sheridan shows great promise behind the camera going forward and has every right to be proud of it. But no matter how many critics are unaware of VILE and write glowing reviews calling WIND RIVER his directorial debut because that's what they've been told, it's not and Sheridan needs to cut the shit. I mean, look at Pantera. They tried to make Metal Magic go away and did that work? No.

Set in the snowy environs of Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation, WIND RIVER opens with Fish & Wildlife agent and experienced hunter/tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) searching for a den of mountain lions and happening upon a corpse frozen in the snow. The dead girl is 18-year-old Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the best friend of Lambert's daughter Emily, who died three years earlier. Since the body was found on federal land, police chief Ben (Graham Greene) is required to notify the FBI, who sends rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to determine if an investigation is necessary. Though the body shows a laceration on the forehead and obvious signs of sexual trauma, the medical examiner concludes that Natalie died from exposure and her lungs exploding in a pulmonary hemorrhage after running barefoot several miles in the subzero cold. He can't call it a homicide. With only six deputies covering thousands of miles of the reservation, Banner is determined to get to the bottom of why Natalie was running in the middle of snow-covered nowhere with no shoes or protective clothing and she asks Lambert to assist with his expert experience in tracking and the lay of the land. Lambert is well-regarded by the residents of the reservation, as his ex-wife (Julia Jones) is the daughter of tribal elders (Apesanahkwat, Tantoo Cardinal) and he knows the land as well as any Native American.

As a point A-to-point B exercise in storytelling, WIND RIVER is a fairly formulaic procedural, with two very different investigators teaming up and learning things that show them a different perspective. Lambert is still consumed by grief and it all comes back when his daughter's friend is killed and he has to console her devastated father (Gil Birmingham, who was so great as the object of Jeff Bridges' ballbusting in HELL OR HIGH WATER), while Vegas-stationed Banner tries to handle things in the blunt, big-city way she's been trained and quickly admits she's in over her head and needs to take a different approach. Sheridan really takes the time to explore the culture of the reservation and the way their youth have turned to crime and drugs, with the parents wondering where they went wrong. Like his earlier screenplays, WIND RIVER is very character-driven and Sheridan obviously studied the tricks of SICARIO director Denis Villeneuve and HELL OR HIGH WATER director David Mackenzie, with one heart-stopping standoff between the investigators, some deputies, and some oil drilling contractors in the area, a grim flashback sequence detailing the events leading to Natalie's death, and not one, but two vehicle caravan sequences straight out of SICARIO. And it's all propelled by a wonderfully haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, so you know things are gonna be downbeat and bleak. Renner and Olsen have rarely been better and the supporting cast, particularly Birmingham and Greene, with Ben's cynical humor generating much tension-easing laughter, makes WIND RIVER an accomplished ensemble piece. It's got a couple of overly melodramatic monologues for Renner, but it's a welcome bit of grown-up, end-of-summer counter-programming at the multiplex, and it further establishes Sheridan as one of Hollywood's top screenwriters. Now just admit you made VILE and everything will be cool.

Sheridan (center) with his WIND RIVER stars
at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

Sheridan (in gray t-shirt) on the set of VILE. Directing.

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