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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Hell or High Water (****1/2) is a bummer, well played

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Hell or High Water – 2016

Director David Mackenzie
Screenplay Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Marin Ireland

“The things we do for our kids, huh?”

Two brothers seeking vengeance on a bank that tried to take everything from their mother. A Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement out for one last adventure with their partner. One wonders, not too hard, where this will end up. The first half of the film is replete with images of West Texas citizens buckling under a debt that seems insurmountable. Why is this? Don’t worry, you get plenty of chances to see.

Toby Howard (Pine) is living on his mother’s property after she has passed away. His ex-wife (Ireland) and two boys live near by, toiling in poverty for his inability to provide since he lost his job as a natural gas driller. The property is about to be reverted to the Midland Bank after a reverse mortgage and other shady dealings I could not explain to you even if I worked in the finance industry.

Toby’s brother, Tanner (Foster) has been out of prison for a year. This doesn’t dissuade him from following his brother’s plan of robbing sever Midland Bank branches to get the money they owe, pay the debt and leave it to Toby’s kids. Tanner is not the most patient person, but he’s not dumb. It’s important to know why he went to prison.

Bridges is Ranger Marcus Hamilton. He dreads the idea of retirement, if for no other reason than it will take him out of the game and away from his half-breed partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham). The interactions between the two is worth the price of admission. It’s also quite interesting to see how they piece together the evidence into an educated guess as to where the robbers may strike next.

Sheridan – whose previous work on Sicario shows that he is on a higher plane – shows similar ability here. Mackenzie is best when he lets off the gas a bit and allows the viewer to come to the point instead of being thrust into it. The story is a tad heavy handed in the first act. Eventually the sentiment is dripped out in small enough doses as not to drown the viewer with good intentions. Mackenzie frames Foster and Pine a little too much like poster boys for GQ Old West. This is remedied by the time we see a wonderful sibling moment at a gas station when stopping in for a Dr. Pepper.

Toby goes in to get his brother the drink. Inexplicably, a musclehead arrives in a muscle car. The musclehead starts something from literally nothing and before Tanner lifts a finger in reaction, Toby decimates the jerk completely.

Toby’s reaction when he opens the bag is priceless.

There is not one bad move in the last two acts. Birmingham and Bridges especially make a subtly remarkable team. It’s obvious these two have shared many miles together and it would be nice to have seen more.

The end of the film goes from absolute bummer, to fist pumper to a remarkably tense stand off of a kind not seen since the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

If you don’t like Sicario, this may not appeal to you either. It is arid and somewhat hopeless, depending on what you feed off of in a story. There are not many winners and losing is leavened only with the prospect of a future showdown.

(****1/2)

Sicario (****1/2): The depth of darkness

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Sicario – 2015

Director Denis Villeneuve
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Screenplay Taylor Sheridan
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Jon Bernthal, Bernardo P. Saracino

Easily the one of the top films of 2015, Sicario pulls you in from the first moments of Roger Deakins amazing camera work and does not let go until everything fades to black. The story is a labyrinthian journey for FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) into the world of the CIA in the never ending battle against Mexican drug cartels. Her CIA counterparts, Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (del Toro) sense an opportunity with her and she volunteers to work with them to further her efforts at investigating her own case.

That the CIA plays by different rules is a given. Their motives never do seem to be the same. After discovering that Gillick has a past in Mexico, they surprise her when they perform a bloody extradition of the cartel’s top men. Having the chance to prosecute a heavyweight in the states, Kate is overruled.  Eventually the two to let her know their true goal: to mess up cartel operations until the U.S. cartel head of operations Diaz (Saracino) is called back home to Mexico.

Everything works in this film. All the actors are completely absorbed into the sequence of events to the extent that it really feels like a much more complex story than it is. Leading the way are Blunt and del Toro. Both performances would be the best in just about anyone else’s career. del Toro in particular holds the viewer with a gravity that rivals his Oscar winning performance in Traffic.

Villeneuve is one of the best directors alive. He his streak is 3 near-classics and counting. His sensibility is one of quiet observation. He allows the viewer to draw his own conclusions on what they are seeing, without pushing even subtly in any direction. His work brings Fincher to mind, with a sense of humor dry as the Arizona desert. His work is given it’s most depth to date in the lens of Deakins. So much to look at with every shot, it would be a pleasure to watch even if there were no plot.

The plot is serviceable, but pushed to greatness with the aforementioned talents. Sheridan is Sheriff Hale from Sons of Anarchy. This is his first published work and he’s planning on working with Villeneuve and del Toro on a follow up. My interest in the sequel will hinge on their continued partnership.

(****1/2 out of *****)