Friday, September 8, 2017

Chilling Out with “Wind River”

When SoCal was sweltering in the grip of the summer’s third heatwave, I decided to take myself to the movies. A perfect choice was a film set in early spring in the frozen wilds of Wyoming. True, Wind River was filmed mostly in Utah. But its sense of place is so powerful that for the length of the movie I felt a genuine chill. 

“Wind River”  refers to an Indian reservation, one that’s about as desolate as can be imagined. In the film’s early going, a character who makes his home near the rez  explains the implications of this lonely place: “My family’s  people were forced here, stuck here for a century. That snow and silence—it’s the only thing that hasn’t been taken from them.”

It’s an apt quote, because this is a film about loss. Which means it’s tremendously sad, but also exhilarating, because the characters who people Wind River are so human: angry, funny, stoic, despairing, and determined to live out their lives on the best terms they can get. They include Jeremy Renner in another of his masterful from-the-gut performances as a hunter with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Elizabeth Olsen as an unlikely FBI agent, and a clutch of remarkable Native American actors, including Graham Greene, once nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in Dances with Wolves. 

Dances with Wolves, which nabbed seven Oscars (out of 12 nominations) back in 1991, makes an interesting contrast to Wind River. When the Kevin Costner vehicle made its debut, it was hailed for its picturesque and highly sympathetic portrayal of Native American life. Unlike classic westerns in the John Wayne mold (see Stagecoach or The Searchers), it did not show Indians as heartless marauders, but rather as a sophisticated culture with a rich heritage. Of course, that was a period piece, as well as something of a romance, with the Indian characters coming off as noble savages. The Native Americans in Wind River have ordinary American names (Ben, Natalie, Martin) and wear ordinary American clothes. Old tribal rituals seem to have little appeal for them.  Some of these characters have aspirations to do more with their lives than just hang on. But most seem stuck in a place that discourages dreams. There’s hopelessness and drug abuse. And young Native American women blessed with beauty and spirit are all too vulnerable to threats from both within and without. The film ends with a shocking revelation: the FBI keeps no statistics on missing Indian women, whose numbers remain unknown.  

Taylor Sheridan, a native Texan, is best known as an actor for his role in TV’s Sons of Anarchy,. Recently he has written three important westerns: Sicario, Hell or High Water (Oscar-nominated for its screenplay), and Wind River. The latter, only his second film as a director, takes him far from his roots in the American Southwest, but allows him to air his strong concerns about Native American life in today’s United States. Wind River also shows us what’s best about an actor’s approach to screenwriting and directing: the characters are complex, and the script avoids on-the-nose dialogue at all cost.  At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Wind River won plaudits and a Best Director award in the Un Certain Regard competition. Here’s part of Sheridan’s Cannes speech: “There is nothing I can do to change the issues afflicting Indian country, but what we can do as artists -- and must do -- is scream about them with fists clenched. What we can do  is make sure these issues aren't ignored.”                        

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