Monday, September 4, 2017

Wind River's Modern American Frontier

Wind River is the third film in a loosely connected trilogy linked to Taylor Sheridan. As a screenwriter in Hell Or High Water and Sicario, he set both in what Sheridan calls the "modern American frontier."  As a director, Sheridan uses the same setting in Wind River to take a stark look at the ways in which sin shatters the world in a 21st century Wild West.

I noted in my review of Hell or High Water that I was conscious while watching the film that it was a remarkably well made movie. I thought the same thing during Wind River. I didn't realize until later that Sheridan was responsible for both. I'm impressed that he got y attention with both. The dialogue and pacing, the brooding silence that suddenly explodes in violence, the way in which the landscape is just as much a character as the actors (the cinematographer also shot Beasts Of The Southern Wild)...  Wind River is just really well done in terms of cinematic art.*

During the opening credits, a voice intones, "There is a meadow in my perfect world." There is no idyllic meadow in this film.  Instead, there is the bitterly cold mountains of Wind River, the only American Indian reservation in Wyoming. As cold as that wind is, there is one just as bitter that moans through too many hearts as well. One character says, "You'd think people would realize this is sheep country." Hello, foreshadowing. Sheep country attracts wolves. There is more than one kind of sheep, and there are many kinds of wolves, and a howling, harrowing wind flows relentlessly through them all.

Basic plot summary: When a young woman is found frozen to death, it is clear that she was raped before running until her lungs burst, drowning her in her own blood. Unfortunately, the mysterious place of her death makes solving the crime difficult. Cory Lambert, a man who tracks animal predators for a living, is more than ready to track human predators as well with the help of an FBI agent and a member of the local tribal police.

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Several things stand out to me about Wind River. (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!)

First, like Sheridan's other movies, Wind River reveals the horror of the inhumanity and evil that lurks in those around us. It's not that there are monsters among us; it's worse than that. There are people among us, people whose lives are characterized by fairly normal living but who have the potential to do terrible things. What makes this movie even more sobering is that this in not merely fiction. Sheridan tackled Wind River after reading about some brutal, unsolved killings on the same reservation featured in the film.

The men who rape the girl (and the men who stand by during the crime and cover it up later) are not men whose pasts suggests they are terrible. They are men who, when drunk, tired and lonely, plummet into the abyss of moral depravity. There is a thin line between civilization and chaos. In the rape scene, Sheridan captures the frailty, fear, callous dehumanization and emotional ravaging that happens in this kind of horrifying situation. We know that, even if the girl were to live, her life would be shattered. There is nothing erotic about the scene. It is ugly and cruel, the kind of scene that made me want to charge the screen and join in the fight that her boyfriend grimly and hopelessly offers.

Fortunately, Wind River does not stop there. It offers hope in the midst of this despair.

  • Cody's daughter's had died three years prior, which enables Cody to offer empathy and guidance to the father mourning the recent loss of his daughter. Grief is hard - excoriatingly, devastatingly, terrifyingly hard - but there is life on the other side of it. The solution is not to run from it but to hold it close and embrace its unrelenting reality. 
  • The three law enforcement officers are all admirable people, which is a refreshing change compared to most portrayals of the law. They are all very different, but they navigate their tension and distrust like adults. I liked them all. I would be proud to have them on my team. Cody is a great protector, a bigger-than-life defender of the sheep from the wolves (an image the movie opens with literally and ends with symbolically). Yes, I'm a sucker for the Jack Reachers and Equalizers of the world, but is that really such a bad thing? Cody's not perfect - his way of dealing with the rapist was clearly not the best response - but at worst he is guilty of doling out a remorseless lex taliones where the punishment fits the crime. Sheridan is making movies about a modern frontier; he nailed what frontier justice looks like. 

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Wind River is lingering with me. As one reviewer noted, "Long after the gunshots of Wind River fade, you might think you hear the cries of the dead." That's kind of how I felt. My wife and I went out for supper after the movie and talked about it more than probably any other movie that preceded a dinner date. We were sobered. Quiet. It wasn't just the story. It was that the story has a grounding in real events. Life really is like that for some people. I know that in my head, but it's movies like this that help it settle into my soul.

This is the kind of movie that has the potential to bring about substantive change. Perhaps that's why a Louisiana tribe gave Sheridan 90% of the money needed for the movie. I don't know what to do personally other than commit to being the kind of man who honors and protects people, fights for the weak and forgotten among us, and upholds justice and mercy wherever I can.


*Read Plugged In's review. There are some definite cautions to this movie. Their conclusion, which I will quote in its entirety because it captures the tensions of a powerful movie with some elements that could have perhaps been handled with a little more care:
"Wind River is a hard movie that gives viewers a glimpse into a hard place. An early scene shows Cory hunting rogue coyotes. That suggestion—that there are predators and there is prey—keeps turning up throughout this painful story. Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation is depicted here as a place where the vulnerable are at the mercy of the strong and hungry. Too often, the film tells us, the defenseless victims in that dynamic are young women. 
Wind River begins with a screen that says, "Inspired by Actual Events." At the end of the film, we're told that Native American women are the only demographic category of missing persons that the federal government doesn't track. The feds, the movie suggests, have no idea how many young women may have been preyed upon, raped, murdered and discarded in this impoverished subculture. 
It's a sobering message, to be sure, but one that the filmmakers clearly hope resonates with viewers in such a way that it might spur some kind of national focus on the nameless victims of these horrific crimes. 
Whether we need to witness those dramatized horrors firsthand ourselves, as we do here, is another important question however, one that anyone considering seeing this hard-R movie will need to consider carefully before purchasing a ticket to it." 

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