Criminal Acts: One Cluster Quite Bitter, The Other Much Sweeter
Reviews by Ken Burke
Wind River (Taylor Sheridan)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): When a teenager’s body is found in the vast snowy emptiness of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation a novice FBI agent joins forces with a local tracker to attempt to find the reason why this girl would run barefoot through such a killing climate; along the way we find out the tracker’s got a personal investment in this case, one that resulted in divorce a few years earlier. This is a brutal story from the screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water, once again about some of the worst aspects of human nature highlighted by desolate geographical settings, told in a forceful manner that comes across as well worth watching despite its brief depictions of horrid crimes; it should be reasonably available in many areas as it’s expanding its coverage while enjoying a healthy critical response (although a few aren't convinced).
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: ⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, continue on if you like.
What Happens: Trauma begins immediately with widescreen shots of a young woman, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille Chow), running aimlessly—barefoot, not at all properly dressed for such cold!—across a snow-covered-field until she collapses, dead (we also hear a female voiceover of downbeat poetry). Next, we watch U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) protect a herd of goats from some wolves by killing one with a sniper rifle, causing the others to scatter. While local ranchers in Lander, WY and nearby (ruggedly-remote) Wind River Indian Reservation appreciate his services, ex-wife Wilma (Julia Jones) just adds further chill to the already-freezing-winter-environment especially when he comes to pick up their son, Casey (Teo Briones), for visits (she also informs him of her job interview in Jackson Hole, about 160 miles away, which will further strain his family ties). Ex-father-in-law Dan Crowheart (Apesanahkwat), is more amenable but his wife, Alice (Tantoo Cardinal), like Wilma, is snippy based on what we find out later: ⇒Her granddaughter/Corey’s daughter, Emily, died in a similarly-mysterious brutal manner 3 years ago (the crime still unsolved), made worse when we later learn Emily was Natalie’s close friend.⇐
One reason Dan’s in better interaction with Cory is he needs this expert tracker/sharpshooter to kill a mountain lion who’s making meals of his livestock, but as Cory’s on the trail of the big cat (and her 2 cubs) he comes across Natalie’s frozen body which leads to involvement by the local Tribal Police Chief, Ben [I can’t find any listing of his last name] (Graham Greene), along with rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), literally out of her element having come to this wilderness from her original home, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, by way of her current posting at the Las Vegas field office. Alice begrudgingly loans her some weather-resistant-clothing of Emily‘s, demanding it be returned (again, her demeanor’s more understandable as later plot events are slowly revealed to us).
Back in the present, a sudden tense standoff cropped up (before the long flashback) between the law agents and the security guards. Jane suddenly becomes authoritative, calms everyone down, but when she knocks on the trailer door she’s met with a gunshot blast (just like when Sam Littlefeather sprayed bear repellant into her eyes in that earlier confrontation) from behind the door, resulting in a bleeding neck injury. ⇒Suddenly everybody’s shooting at everyone else, with all of the lawkeepers except Jane dead, only a few of the guards left, but as they prepare to finish her off they’re killed from a distance by Cory (who’d been tracking the lions that morning, but when he found them in a little cave not far from the oil compound he let them live, then watched—in his camouflage white suit—what was happening down at the trailers). Only Jane and Pete survived this mini-massacre, with Pete captured by Cory as he tried to escape. When Pete revives (after absorbing a rifle butt), he admits the rape of Natalie, death of Matt, but instead of Cory taking him into custody he offers Pete the opportunity to run away (barefoot) from the snow-covered-mountain where Cory hauled him so he does, soon dying the same internal-lung-death that claimed Natalie. Afterward, we get a brief scene of closure with Cory visiting Jane in the hospital (there’s a clear connection, praise from him for her strength [not luck], but it’s doubtful either will relocate), then a longer one where Cory visits Martin who’s in mourning with his painted death face (although he admits he’s lost contact with the meaning of that tradition), had his first phone conversation with Chip after a year of estrangement, shares the deep loss of their daughters.⇐ Pre-credits-graphics tell us American Indian women’s disappearances are the least-reported, least-resolved probable-criminal situations in the U.S. (assault and rape are likely factors into this grotesque pattern as well).
So What? (Warning, faithful readers! Ridiculously-long-digression just ahead!) Sheridan’s work's been on my eagerly-anticipated-list since I saw what he was able to accomplish with forceful, well-understood-in-motivation-and-structure screenplays for Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015; review in our October 15, 2015 posting) and Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016; review in our August 26, 2016 posting—one of my longest explorations yet, but still a fact-filled, interesting read [even if I do say so myself], not bad in layout either, a claim I wish I could make for postings prior to 2016 but most of those earlier ones are amass [or, honestly, just a mess] with too many words, not enough spacing from photos or other paragraph breaks)—the latter film I saw again just a few days before Wind River, still a masterpiece, one I probably should have elevated to the hallowed-realm of 4½ stars last year. I considered revising the rating, but if I do that for any entry in my long lists of 4-, 3½-, or 3-star-choices (the lower ones don’t need rethinking any more than the very-upper-ones do) the only fair thing would be to re-watch all of them for possible reconsideration which isn’t going to happen so I’ll just live with my earlier decision (which is still a vote of strong support for Hell or High Water as it’s #3 on my 2016 Top 10 list, behind my extremely-rare-choices of 5 stars for Fences [Denzel Washington; reviews in our January 4, January 12, 2017 postings], 4½ stars for Nocturnal Animals [Tom Ford; review in our December 8, 2016 posting, another analysis I’m quite proud of]—I’ve also just had a cable-TV reunion with this latter film, still stunning in its own form of icy-cruelty), a choice not made lightly as I usually have a few days after a screening to mull over what rating to give to these filmic expressions so I think I’d likely stand pat with most of my initial choices anyway.
Back to the matter at hand, while Wind River’s not quite as effective for me as Hell … ⇒(for one thing, there’s too much of a connection made toward the end between Natalie and Emily—we learn the poem we heard while watching Natalie’s frantic run through the snow was written by Emily—to find out nothing further about how and why Emily died much like her friend),⇐ it’s still marvelous as a drama, effective in calling attention to the unreported-plight of many Native American women (“Inspired by Actual Events,” the opening graphics tell us), a further testimony to the cinematic mastery we can hope to see more of from Taylor Sheridan. One other aspect of it that’s a bit distracting, though, is how quiet moments of dialogue come across (at least to my almost-70-year-old-ears) as mumbles so that some intimate exchanges between Jane and Cory (but not overtly romantic, more empathetic as she learns about Emily’s death) fall into the well of ambiguity, even as the overall tone of the scene remains clear (I had this same observation/complaint about another excellent recent film, Columbus [Kogonada; review in our August 16, 2017 posting]) so I guess either directors/sound-mixers are getting less concerned about scene-to-scene aural balance (also characterized by increasing tendencies to boost overall volume of music when it takes precedence in a scene, even if it’s literally a background song intended to be heard only by the audience, so that I find myself taking a bit longer to re-adjust to quieter overall levels of dialogue when they return to prominence) or this has become part of a new aesthetic that I’m just not fully accustomed to as yet.
One indication of that possible new aesthetic reality is Sheridan’s use at times of softly-spoken-words in the soundtrack’s background that give a bit more sense of menace to the scene without needing to be specifically followed (more like how Gus van Sant used the same tactic with a barely-audible-mix of unnerving-ambiance in his remake of Psycho [1998; original by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960] as opposed to how Robert Altman often used rich mixes of foreground-background-voices, forcing the viewer [listener] to concentrate on what needed to be followed for important plot purposes, just like we must do in noisy environments where what’s intended to be heard isn’t always the predominant sound that we take in). Unlike these occasional soundtrack variances in Wind River, though, the cinematography of these winter landscapes is consistently striking ⇒(although there are scenes using unmotivated, distracting shaky camera shots—yet at other times this tactic works well as when we see Pete’s point of view as he’s painfully crawling through the snow prior to stumbling over to his death),⇐ just as it’s pleasing to revisit familiar Native faces I haven’t seen in awhile, both having made solid impacts in earlier films, Greene as Kicking Bird in Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990), Cardinal as Arlene Joseph in Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre, 1998). While I don’t know about everyone else in the supporting cast I have been able to verify that Birmingham, Jones, Chow, Sensmeier, and Apesanahkwat are all of various Native heritages, so I commend Sheridan’s team for authenticity in their casting, long a sore point in Hollywood’s history.
Bottom Line Final Comments: In some earlier review (I've noted this before but I honestly still have no idea which one), I made the point you can tell when a film’s had a difficult time getting into existence when you find it’s the result of a half-dozen production companies because obviously financing wasn’t forthcoming from the more-high-roller-sources. Well, in this case, Wind River’s come to our screens by way of a 13-group-collaboration (plus The Weinstein Company for distribution), including the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana (willing, I guess, to help get the story told of some of their Native brothers and sisters, even from far across the continent); such financing difficulties are not necessarily indicative of questionable-quality, though, just hedging on the part of those looking for bigger profits who rather go for higher returns by investing in something like The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Patrick Hughes) or Annabelle: Creation (David F. Sandberg), which are each now playing in well over 3,000 theaters, grossing about $21.6 and $64 million respectively after their mere 1 and 2 weeks in domestic (U.S.-Canada) distribution (plus another $98.7 million in overseas receipts for Annabelle …), easily addressing their $29 and $15 million budgets (respectively using only 2 and 3 production companies as well) while … River’s been out for 3 weeks but is playing in only 694 theaters so far with income of about $4 million, struggling to return its $11 million budget.
You’d think with 4 Oscars nominations for … High Water (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor [Jeff Bridges], Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing)—along with 97% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, an 88% score at Metacritic—and 3 Oscar noms for Sicario (Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing)—along with 94% positive at RT, an 82% score at MC—(and only 4 production companies involved for the former, a mere 2 for the latter) Wind River wouldn’t need such an extensive outreach to secure its financing, but given how slowly it’s had to build its presence, even at a time in the distribution cycle when there’s not much else for serious competition, plus the reality Hell … took in only about $37.9 million worldwide (against a $12 million budget) after 14 weeks in release (August-November, 2016) while Sicario made $84.9 million worldwide (against a $30 million budget)—profit percentages in the low 30s for each—you might be better able to understand why something of such a heritage and approach as Wind River has to struggle for attention even with solid critical support (RT's 87% positive reviews, MC's 73% score).
Moving on to my standard use of a Musical Metaphor (a last look at the film under review but from an aural perspective) for Wind River I’ll offer you Muddy Waters’ “Cold Weather Blues” (from the 1964 Folk Singer album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJxWSSGzifs as its lyrics speak well to this story with “You know the little girl fail to come […] Hot spring water […] wouldn’t help her none,” referencing the deaths of both Natalie and Emily, just as I can hear Jane looking out over those deadly frozen fields saying “Well, you know I’m going back down south People, where the weather suits my clothes” because even Cody and Martin would have to admit it’s “So cold up north that the birds can’t hardly fly” (I don’t recall seeing any winging above throughout this film), with all of these characters—well, the ones still alive at the end—just desperately hoping they can “Let this winter pass on by, yeah.” (But if Waters’ lyrics are passing you by, given a blues-man’s tendency to either mumble or shout his words you want to consult this site for a clearer account of what he’s saying, just as I want to be clear this song choice comes courtesy of my insightful wife, Nina Kindblad, who, when I told her I’d been trying for 4 days to come up with an appropriate song for Wind River simply took out her iPhone, Googled “winter tragedy songs,” giving me several possibilities of which Muddy’s tune seems to be just right, although Joni Mitchell’s "Urge for Going" [written in the mid-1960s, not available on her albums until the 1996 Hits compilation] not a bad choice either, with lines about “the sun turns traitor cold […] I get the urge for going But I never seem to go […] And all that stays is dying […] When the meadow grass is turning brown And summertime is falling down,” but Muddy’s grittier take better syncs to Wind River’s situation than Joni’s contemplative tone, more appropriate for after the massacre) so I thank Nina for being a marvelous movie companion, a faithful reader (and editor) of this blog, as well as the light of my life for the last 30 years, a blessing that the characters in our next movie could have used a lot more of.
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
Logan Lucky (Steven Soderberg)
In this silly comedy (with hints of serious undertone) a West Virginia construction worker’s laid off for reasons he finds unacceptable so he plans an elaborate heist to recoup a fortune from his former employer, with the help of his sister, his 1-armed brother, a safecracker now serving time, the convict’s 2 goofy brothers, and loads of tight precision timing.
Here's the trailer:
Before reading any further, I'll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
Logan Lucky (an unappealing title if ever there was one) has about 3 times the narrative complexity of Wind River, but I've chosen to deal with it under my Short Takes structure (with an ironclad-determination to be concise with those lengthy plot details) because it’s basically a 2-hour-dose of diversionary-silliness that can be appreciated for its quick pace, intricate robbery scheme (some of which I still don’t understand), and effectively-hilarious-comic-acting (although I’m not sure if the folks in Appalachia will like it as much as I did, along with most other critics as well—93% positive RT reviews, 78% average score at normally lower-leaning MC—but it’s a good thing I didn’t pay that much attention to the decisions of San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle [“We might as well be watching gears turn in a machine. The experience is trance-inducing.”] or the New York Observer’s Rex Reed [“Logan Lucky is as charming and welcome as toenail fungus”—at least he gives me a reference I can relate to; I’ve been trying to rid some of my toes of that muck for years], both of whom are well off the mark this time in my opinion), but isn’t something you should mourn if you miss it (and a lot of people already have, given that it opened on just over 3,000 domestic screens but pulled in only about $7.6 million, considered a notable underperformance by current standards).
There’s also the consideration of the untimely (fortunate?) coincidence of this movie's release within temporal proximity of the events in a nearby-part of the South (the Charlottesville, VA violence, with its further-national-fabric-tearing due to mixed-message-comments from our self-congratulatory Divider-in-Chief, heaping concocted praise upon himself at an Arizona campaign rally this week), allowing humor to be found in the lives of fictionalized Southern folks, depending on how those depicted choose to take it; for me, it’s hilarious but Southerners are notorious for ridiculing each other so with my Texas heritage I may be laughing at lifestyles the further-East folks* wouldn’t find so funny (just like my parents, when they were still living near Abilene in west TX didn’t understand what transplanted-Californian-me found so hilarious about TV’s King of the Hill satire).
*One of my aunts (the most liberal of my relatives) always insisted Texas wasn’t part of the South but rather the Southwest; I guess she was right if you accept Ft. Worth as “Where the West Begins” with hundreds of miles to go from there toward the Pacific Ocean before you finally get to El Paso.
As for that plot, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a once-promising-high-school-footballer whose career was cut short by a knee injury, loses his construction job fixing sink holes at the Charlotte Motor Speedway (actually in the nearby city of Concord, NC) because that undisclosed bum knee is considered an insurance liability by his employer (you’d know replacement work’s going to be difficult to come by if you look at a map to see how far he’s already commuting from his rural home in Boone County, WV, one of the serious undercurrents in this otherwise surface-silly-movie). Further complications arise when his snotty ex-wife Bobbi Jo (Katie Holmes)—now remarried to preening car dealer Moody Chapman (David Denman)—is planning to move to Lynchburg, VA (better sales opportunities than their current location)—making it much harder for Jimmy to visit their precious little daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie). For unemployment-revenge (and financial desperation), Jimmy concocts a complex plot to rip off the Speedway with the help of 1-armed-younger-brother Clyde Logan (Adam Driver)—who lost his left hand, lower part of that arm during a tour in Iraq but works as a bartender, making an excellent martini with just his right arm (leaving his left prosthesis on the counter) yet laments the seeming bad-luck-curse of his family—sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough), plus master safecracker (but currently incarcerated) Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) who insists his 2 brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) must also be part of the deal.
⇒Although I could explain how a birthday cake, roaches, Sadie’s talent show (for which Jimmy spray paints a tan onto her body), Moody’s hot-rod-Mustang, accelerated-work-schedules at the Speedway, a bomb built on chemical reactions between Gummy Bears and bleach (I think), a concocted riot at Joe’s prison with demands for Game of Thrones books in the bargain, along with various other aspects of this complicated story lead to the bank robbery, all you really need to know is money’s sent through pneumatic tubes from the Speedway concession stands straight to a local bank vault so our rag-tag-crooks siphon off that cash flow during the hugely-attended Coca-Cola 600 race (a real event, longest on the NASCAR circuit), hauling away a fortune inside trash bags.⇐
⇒I can also assure you that despite apparent glitches (all of which are part of Jimmy’s master plan), including bags of cash left in a truck at a gas station with Jimmy calling the cops for it to be retrieved, all ends well for the thieves because Jimmy, Clyde, and Mellie got other bags of cash out via a dumpster, trash truck, and burial so when retrieved later there’s plenty for all who helped even in a minor way for this complex plot to go off so perfectly (Sadie winning her contest to boot), allowing Jimmy to move to Lynchburg to stay close to his daughter (as Bobbi Jo's mysteriously now nicer to him) although he travels back to WV to be with his new love, county doctor Sylvia Harrison (Katherine Waterston), while Mellie’s taken up with Joe, even as determined FBI agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank) flirts with Clyde trying to understand what happened for the “Hee Haw Heroes,” just as the end credits roll. I know nothing about chemical reactions (although Joe explains it to Jimmy and Clyde with conveniently-handy-chalk on a concrete wall) to know why his bag exploded nor why that somehow allowed our crooks to break into the cash flow to siphon it all off for themselves,⇐ but clarity of details isn’t the most critical aspect of enjoying the complexity and split-second-timing needed to make this a fun-but-forgettable-afternoon-matinee-experience.
You’re welcome to join in the critics’ debate (insignificant as it may be) as to whether this return to moviemaking by Soderbergh after announcing his retirement 4 years ago is a welcome action or not (I also retired 4 years ago but I haven’t got any Hollywood heavyweights lining up to do business with me ... yet). Certainly he’s been down this road before with his even-more-intricate-robberies in much classier surroundings in the Las Vegas or European heists in Ocean’s Eleven (2001), … Twelve (2004), … Thirteen (2007), so Logan Lucky may feel a bit like a retread, but even so it’s marvelously-well-constructed, has lots of quick comic elements (Clyde works at the Duck Tape saloon, Chilbrain’s company is the Love Handle Corp.), even managing to maintain its pace into ending scenes ⇒involving the FBI inability to crack this case (maybe they needed Jane Banner’s help—other interesting overlaps between these entirely different cinematic experiences include the male protagonists’ strained relationships with an ex-spouse over a shared child and the inclusion of a pair of dim-witted-brothers, although Sam Bang does manage to display his claimed cyber-skills by throwing the Speedway’s computer system out of operation, forcing more cash to flow through those pneumatic tubes—but he does it by simply tossing a small explosive into an electrical sub-station) along with some final come-uppance to rich-jerk/race-car-owner Max Chilblain (Seth MacFarlane) when his disgruntled driver Dayton White (Sebastian Stan) refuses to corroborate his story of seeing the Logan brothers at the Speedway when both had alibis to be somewhere else during the complex-operation, after the whole thing seemed to take a surprise turn toward an assumed end with Jimmy allowing retrieval of what we’re led to believe is all of the stolen cash.⇐
As for a Musical Metaphor to finish up a somewhat-appropriately-named Short Takes presentation (I’ve done much longer ones, as you might know) what other choice do I have than Sadie’s contest-winning, crowd-sing-a-long, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” sung by John Denver (written by him, Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert [as recounted by Jimmy to Sadie]; on the 1971 album Poems, Prayers & Promises) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tk4F-sDqF2Q, a live performance (place and time [1995?] unknown to me, lyrics added if you’d like to join Sadie’s crowd by contributing karaoke); however, if you’d like to see a performance by the original writers, even though the video’s not so great but the audio’s fine, here it is (undernourished imagery and all). Logan Lucky’s more about the “stranger to blue water” aspects of the song than it is to the “Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River” aspects, but It’s a catchy tune, so you might want to keep repeating it until we next meet to share a cold beer (You’re bringing the Lone Star, right?) on the front porch of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark. (Oh wait, sorry; I was thinking about frequent scenes in Hell or High Water again.)
Or, if you’d like something else to do besides singing along with John Denver (which I actually did sometime back in 1971 or ’72 when he came to Austin, TX for a concert—he’d quickly made a lot of fans who knew his music back then, so joining in was an easy task; that concert was also a great memory because his opening act was Steve Martin back in his hippie-hair, banjo-playing, fake-arrow-through-the-head days), I’ll offer one last musical interlude, "Brain Damage" flowing into "Eclipse"* by Pink Floyd (from their exquisite 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon album) to note again the kind of leadership being offered from the Trump administration these days (even without Steve Bannon within the inner circle) if you accept “the lunatic […] on the grass [… and] in the hall” to be referring to locations at the White House, a constantly-confused-place where “the band you’re in starts playing different tunes,” along with the much more positive celebration this week of the grand-political-distraction-event offered by the total solar eclipse, which in its mysterious majesty reminded us, as the song says, when “everything under the sun is [finally] in tune [we might find chaos—whether good or bad, that's yet to be determined—can still reign when] the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” So, sleep well, faithful readers, before bombs start flying to and from North Korea and/or Afghanistan; if it should come to pass we may all yet meet on “the dark side of the moon.”
*This video also has lyrics in case you’re solidly into that sing-a-long-mode, but if you’d like to see Pink Floyd performing these songs I can accommodate you in a slightly disjointed manner: this video features original members (well, after they got famous at least) David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Richard Wright (the latter now dead, unfortunately) in a 1994 concert at Earl’s Court, London, while this one features the other founding member of the group, Roger Waters, from his current Us + Them tour, this show done about 3 months ago in Louisville, KY (I’m extremely glad to have seen Waters twice, last fall at the Indio, CA Desert Trip festival and in Oakland, CA in June of this year).
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Here’s more information about Wind River:
https://www.facebook.com/WindRiverMov/ (oddly enough, even IMDb lists this as the official site, but more details you can also consult IMDb at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5362988/combined)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNcH6zUn72A (37:47 interview with writer-director Taylor Sheridan)
Here’s more information about Logan Lucky:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aXGQ5bRruw (2:20 silly video—in keeping with the tone of the movie—of actual race car drivers talking about their very minor roles in Logan Lucky)
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