Wind River (****): In the battle between you and the world…

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Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene, Martin Sensmeier

It seems in an ever political world that one can find statistics for everything. Everything except missing Native American women, according to Taylor Sheridan. If it were not for this film about two such women found murdered, and the lives their loss affected, the reality of these losses might have been lost to me, too.

Whatever one can glean from the well written trio of films on his resume, Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, we get to see damaged and resilient people who forge ahead in a world without mercy. That doesn’t mean that mercy is absent from the experience for the viewer.

In the winter on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, we see a young woman, Natalie Hanson (Chow) struggling barefoot though the snow in the midst of night. She doesn’t make it far, from what we see. We find out that her last trek is much more astounding, however tragic.

The next day Wildlife Agent Cody Lambert (Renner)is in the midst of a normal winter morning, tracking down predators of the local herds. We see him take down a significant portion of a wolf pack in the midst of sheep. This is not the last time we will see this. After picking up his boy from their mother Wilma (Jones) we discover the reason for their divorce, ostensibly in the altar displaying the short beautiful life of a young woman on the mantle.

Soon Cody is asked to help his in laws track a mother mountain lion. On his way to visit them on the reservation we see a tattered American flag blowing upside down in the wind over a group of Natives building a bonfire in the snow. He takes a sled to follow the tracks and comes across the last tracks Natalie Hanson ever made. He crumbles into the snow beside her.

Natalie was the daughter of his own deceased daughter, found much the same way a few years earlier. After calling it in, the FBI sends Jane Banner (Olsen) from a seminar in Las Vegas. She is nowhere near ready to handle this case. Like many of Taylor Sheridan’s female protagonists, she has more than enough fortitude for the task.

There are two separate journeys in Wind River, neither of which revolve around the mystery of who committed the murders. Instead we are seeing how one grieving father sees the legacy he thought was cut short survive through his helping another person in her quest to do the same.

Renner is excellent here, choosing to play his character as one who expects little from life, even if he’s still willing to give what he has to those that he feels are deserving. His interactions with the Natalie’s father Martin (Birmingham) are among the film’s highlights. A companion in grief, he offers what solace he can while promising to help Banner hunt for the “predator” who brought his friend’s daughter to her end.

When giving Natalie’s brother the news, we get an insight to his mind:

Chip: Man, I get so mad i want to fight the whole world. You got any idea what that feels like?
Cory Lambert: I do. I decided to fight the feeling instead. Cause i figured the world would win.

As Banner, Olsen has the least amount of room to move. If there can be one criticism of Sheridan’s characters, it’s that he tends to put them on an idealistic pedestal. She’s young and willing to help and learn, and she has to yet go through every road that the seasoned men have already gone through. And unlike men, women here are either victims or on their way to deliverance. The men get to cause the victimhood, learn from it, and understand their nature as the harsher sex.

If this is the limit to Sheridan’s ability, he’s still got more wisdom than most artists in the film industry. His prose and dialogue are incredible in their power, understanding and wisdom. And he’s quotable as hell.

The character actors are a huge asset as usual. Graham Greene is exactly the perfect combination of wisdom and humor. It’s a crime that they don’t have a spot for him in every movie. His delivery is impeccable, like when he answers Jane’s request for backup:

This isn’t the land of waiting for back up. This is the land of you’re on your own.

Gil Birmingham may be my favorite actor right now. He’s been around for years, but it wasn’t until Hell or High Water when I realized how much nuance a man can show with such a stoic demeanor. Seeing him (lower right) in this Diana Ross video for Muscles gives no indication of an actor, but it sure is funny. The best work he’s done give no indication of that body, just a depth of soul.

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The fact that there is little mystery to the film shouldn’t matter if character and feeling are what you are seeking. The reveal at the end is less of a surprise than the action of the climax. And in typical Sheridan fashion the climax is never the conclusion of the story. Time must be taken to recover. That is time where most people live in a world without mercy.

(**** of *****)

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The Magnificent Seven (****) is star power at its best

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Magnificent 7 – 2016

Director Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk based on Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa,
Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring  Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Matt Bomer, Sean Bridgers

In all fairness, I didn’t really care to see this movie. Washington has been in several good but nowhere near great films lately and I thought I would wait until it was released on video. When I came upon an extra 4 hours, I decided it was the best thing I hadn’t seen yet to pass the time. It was a grand decision.

Let’s be clear, nothing I watched in the span of 133 minutes is anything close to original. It’s the basis of most of the Westerns ever released, even if this version is properly accredited to Kurosawa’s original classic.

What one gets in a movie like this is the opportunity to try on a comfortable story with the flavors of the moment. The two primary ingredients this time, Washington and Pratt, are given the privilege of filling well worn characters with their own version of the trope. They are marvelous, but surprisingly aren’t even the best performers in the story.

That honor is awarded to Bennett and Lee. Who they play is not as important as how they play the roles. Both are fearless in attacking their roles with a fierceness rarely seen in retread stories. Bennett is the wronged woman Emma Cullen, stepping up when everyone steps back. She’s never expected her life to be rolled over by the likes of Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard) and she’ll be damned if she takes it laying down, like the rest of the residents of her mining town Rose Creek are all too willing to do. Emma heads to the nearest town in search of help. She ends up with Warrant Officer Sam Chisolm (Washington), who accepts the opportunity at vengeance because he wants a crack at Bogue.

Chisolm gathers up the dangerously loquacious Josh Faraday (Pratt) and together they gather the United Nations of anti-heroes to come along and help. This group includes Hawke’s dangerous yet shell shocked sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux. Robicheaux just happens to be doing the Every Which Way But Loose tour with his friend Billy Rocks (Lee). To say Rocks is good with knives would be like saying Quigley’s only good with rifles. Frankley, the dude can master every type of weapon imaginable.

By far the strangest addition to the group is D’Onofrio’s grizzled old kook trapper Jack Horne. The tone of voice used from the onset is shades of latter day Brando. That voice morphs into something different, but equally indecipherable when they get to Rose Creek. As much as he needs subtitles to be understood, D’Onofrio has mastered the skill of holding the camera’s gaze. It’s not a wasted performance by any means. Let’s just say I had to acquire the taste.

Mexican outlaw (Garcia-Rulfo) is represented as more than an a brown person with an accent. His character is given some gravitas and actually fits in well with Pratt’s goofball persona, without losing any of his stoic demeanor.

Only the rogue Comanche (Sensmeier) comes closest to being a trivia question here. His motivations are never clear enough to explain his desire to join the group, especially after nearly every one of them pulls a gun on him at first meeting when it’s obvious he’s not a threat in the slightest.

Pratt makes a bit of a comeback here, after floundering a bit with Jurassic World. Even if he’s merely a more dangerous version of Star Lord, he gets the best moments of the script and never flounders the opportunity.

Washington, as usual, gets the straight man role and flourishes. He’s not been a supporting actor in so many years, it’s hard to expect that he would develop any tics at this point. He’s got the charisma of Eastwood, but he doesn’t have to rely on a snarl. He’s the most reliable actor of the last 20 years and this is a performance that brings him glory without having to do more than flex his tiniest acting muscles. His leader outshines the one note Brenner and equals Shimura’s original. What’s most incredible is that what he’s doing doesn’t even feel like acting. It’s just who he seems to be.

Sarsgaard gives us some good old greasy evil. He’s despicable and he has style. He walks on the good side of Ribisiville. That’s a good thing, because until I saw this, I didn’t know one could pull off a stylish version of Ribisi.

The best thing about this story is Lee. He continues to shine in everything he’s in. He exceeds the grasp of his caricature here. He’s just supposed to throw knives. Instead he brings charisma to every scene he’s in, while bringing depth to Hawke’s already good performance. He is the spice that moves the needle to near greatness.

Fuqua continues to succeed in Hollywood, when critics keep comparing him to Denzel’s Oscar vehicle Training Day. He turns huge profits with most projects and his actors love working for him. Working with True Detective writer Pizzolato serves the best instincts of both. There is no downtime here. This is the best PG-13 violence I have witnessed in a film. It looks dangerous and the humor works without removing the tension.

Even if you are not a fan of the recent spate of pale remakes that come along with every generation, this update is worth your time. It will take a spot in my collection, to be sure. Right after Kurosawa.

(**** out of *****)