- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The films of Taylor Sheridan present a bleak world of characters clinging to dubious morals to survive in a world that is evil. Think of the drug cartel enemies dangling from Mexican bridges — their trousers about their ankles — in “Sicario” or the endless Texas vistas as backdrop for a manhunt by an aging lawman (Jeff Bridges) for two bank robber brothers in “Hell or High Water.” Both films boasted main characters who were atypical heroes, defecated upon by life, but taking on the greater maleficence of the world because it was what they must do.

Mr. Sheridan, who wrote those two outstanding films, now steps behind the camera as writer/director with “Wind River,” yet another tale of desolate Western landscapes providing background for damaged humans at war with one another.

“Wind River,” opening Thursday, commences on a moonlit snowscape as a bloodied young woman runs from something — or someone. A title card informs us the film is “inspired” by true events, but I suspect “Wind River” is less the recreation of an actual case than it is an attempt to empathize with the ongoing plight of the continent’s native peoples.

Indeed, the young woman we see at the outset is Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a teenage American Indian of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. (The no-less-beautiful Park City, Utah, subbed in on locations.) Wind River is a tough place, with its native population, at first decimated and subjugated by the white man, now at the mercy of poverty, rampant drug use, alcoholism and the ongoing apathy of the United States government. Mr. Sheridan and his outstanding cinematographer, Ben Richardson, film the reservation scenes at first in warm tones, in contrast to the coolness of Rocky Mountain snow vistas of earlier in the film. Our first vision as the protagonist drives onto Wind River is of a group of Indians sitting in front of a ramshackle shack, an upside-down American flag posted afore their property. No dialogue is offered; none is needed.

I have so far described little of the plot, and this is purposeful. To behold a film written in Mr. Sheridan’s hand is to enter its universe first, and then to understand its denizens. Mr. Sheridan enjoyed a lengthy, if not especially distinguished, acting career before switching to writing, and it is as a scribe where he has found his calling. Violence in his world is endemic, sudden, omnipresent and brutal. He is one of contemporary cinema’s most outstanding world-builders, as well as its least sentimental.

But even the best-designed world can bore without a good story in which to set. Mr. Sheridan has indeed come up with another stirrer in “Wind River.” After the opening scene of young Natalie running terrified through the night snow, the film switches to a daytime scene of a herd of goats. Coyotes watch ominously, leaning down on their haunches in attack preparation. A shot rings out and one of the wolves falls. A man emerges from a hidden perch, camouflaged in a white jacket. He removes his face mask to reveal Jeremy Renner. It’s an outstanding entrance, and it will be called back to later when Mr. Renner’s character, Cory, says to another, “I hunt the wolves,” but this time with a whole other meaning.

Cory is no mere sportsman, rather he is an employee of the government, paid to ward off predators from livestock herds. I actually smiled as, right after dispatching the wolf in question, the goats cheerily follow him, as if he is both shepherd and protector.

Any man who deals daily with death must surely also carry a surfeit of pain, and Cory’s burden is titanic in its awfulness. The reason for his hurt is only hinted at in early scenes, but Mr. Renner’s steely eyes, downcast gaze, gravelly reading and three days’ growth of beard express the agony within Cory better than any speech about the source could — though he eventually does get one of those, which, when it comes, still feels right.

Cory picks up his half-Indian son from his ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones), and the way in which Mr. Sheridan stages this scene is expertly realized. Forget any cliches about formerly married movie characters waxing about “what went wrong” or decrying their former partner for perceived or real failings. There is no shouting, but there is no hugging or smiles either. Only brokenness and defeat at the hands of life.

Dropping his son off at his grandparents’ home on the reservation, Cory is asked by his former father-in-law (Apesanahkwat) to track down lions who have killed one of his steers. Cory follows a trail of blood that leads him not to a big cat but rather to the body of a young woman all but frozen in the snow. He knows her.

Because homicides on Indian land are classified as federal crimes, jurisdiction falls to a rather green FBI agent (Elisabeth Olsen) who arrives from Las Vegas without even a proper coat, leading to sneers from both Cory and the reservation’s top cop Ben (Graham Greene, whom you may recognize as the tribal chief from “Dances With Wolves”). Miss Olsen’s fed, though tough and capable, is out of her element, and doesn’t understand this world. It’s a fine metaphor for how the U.S. government has continued to deal with the Indians long after their surrender.

To call “Wind River” a whodunit is like calling “The Godfather” a family drama. Yes, the murder sets the plot in motion, but it is also the device by which Mr. Sheridan peels back the suppurating, ugly scab that is America’s ongoing relationship with the Natives, and how 21st century greed continues to rob them of the resources to which they are the rightful owners.

“It is the great shame of my nation the manner in which it has treated the native inhabitants of North America,” Mr. Sheridan said when “Wind River” premiered at Cannes this spring. “Sadly, my government continues that shame with an insidious mixture of apathy and exploitation.”

“Wind River,” with its hauntingly beautiful shots of the American West, is alluring even amid its desolateness. It is the abyss of Descartes translated to tell a story of America’s original sin of subjugating the continent’s native peoples.

“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,” Mr. Sheridan said at Cannes. “What we can do is make sure these issues aren’t ignored. Then the people who can effect change will be forced to.”

Rated R. Contains violence, profanity, a rape scene, drug use and the abyss.

Opens Thursday.

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