Elizabeth Olsen has been making a huge impact on film these days and already was a decade ago I was pleased to learn with 2011’s Silent House, a superior, intelligent and unconventional horror film that showcases some of the best ‘scream Queen’ acting from her that I’ve seen in the genre overall. This is a simple story that sees her play a teenage girl who is helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) pack up a house that they are about to move out of. Everything seems routine save for a little bickering until suddenly she finds herself trapped in a threatening netherworld version of the house, full of half seen ghosts, whispering voices and apparently no contact with the outside world. Is she dead? Hallucinating? The switch from the opening scenes into frightening territory is so swift and so abrupt that at first I had no idea what was going on and felt disoriented, but then realized that’s exactly how this poor girl must feel and noted how effectively and promptly the film drew me into its world and the point of view of its protagonist. She wanders about with little notion of what to do beyond hide, scream and run until she finds old Polaroids and other long forgotten totems of memory and we see the truth slowly come to light. It’s a sad, tragic revelation that so many girls who went through what she did as a kid must later unearth in their own repressed memories and Olsen’s performance is note perfect on every level. There are some deeply terrifying scenes here including a sequence where she uses the brief flash of the Polaroid camera to gain some visibility in the dark and quickly wishes she didn’t as we catch momentary glimpses of the horrors surrounding her. The camera work, staging and spatial dynamics are all excellently done by husband and wife directing team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who are remaking a Uruguayan horror film here of the same name that I have yet to see but based on the sterling quality level I experienced here, it must be something else indeed. This is dark, tragic, genuinely creepy horror on all levels, a story told in almost dreamlike fashion with a lead performance from Olsen so potent with raw fear and deep anxiety I’d almost be hesitant to discover what her actor’s process is. Really great stuff.
“I knew this girl, and she was a fighter. However far you think she ran, I can promise you she ran farther…”
I couldn’t find an exact verbatim quote, but that’s the kind of affecting, succinctly written dialogue to be found in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, a deeply moving knockout of a film. The third in a so far brilliant stateside saga dubbed the ‘frontier trilogy’ (following Sicario and Hell Or Highwater), River is the beast of the bunch, a surprisingly emotional, fully engaging murder mystery set in yet another harsh, weather beaten vista where life struggles to survive, namely a desolate Indian reservation in the heart of Wyoming. We open with life in jeopardy right out of the gate: as Nick Cave’s haunting original score howls across the snowy plain, a terrified young girl flees through the landscape, alone and injured. She doesn’t make it through the night. This sparks an investigation from the scant law enforcement the area has to offer (Graham Greene is wonderfully world weary as the tribal Sheriff), a rookie FBI Agent (Elizabeth Olsen) and a veteran game tracker (Jeremy Renner in hands down the best work he’s ever done) who’s rocked by his own personal tragedy. Their task is anything but easy, stalled on all sides by criminal activity, uncooperative suspects and that ever present, ruthless winter climate. The mystery, although not quite as elaborate as one might imagine going in, is an unfortunate and infuriating situation that fires up the blood, as well as Renner’s dogged hunting instinct and need for retribution, an act he solemnly promises to the girl’s broken father, played by Gil Birmingham in the kind of show stopping, heartbreaking performance that pretty much demands a best supporting nod. Renner is just… so good, and it’s jarring to see him out of that glossy Hawkeye getup and in a role with some real heft, but he carries himself with grave charisma, especially in a monologue that will have eyes, ears and hearts rooted to the screen. This is Sheridan’s first time in the director’s chair and the guy proves he’s just as uncannily gifted as he is with writing, especially when it comes to action, his rendition of the classic Mexican standoff/shootout is queasily suspenseful and the best sequence of it’s kind that I’ve seen in years. He’s also got a knack for finding just the right musical talent for his pictures as well. Sicario saw Jóhann Jóhannsson whip up an audible nightmare of a score, and Hell Or Highwater also had the benefit of Cave and Warren Ellis, whose compositions here echo out through the desolation like laments for those lost, dead and buried under the snow. Tightly paced, emotionally rich, suffocating in it’s scenes of tension, cathartically invigorating when it needs to be, all of the best things a story should be are on display here. If Sheridan’s output continues to ascend the way we’ve seen so far, he’ll singlehandedly save ol’ Hollywood.