“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.
John Hillcoat’s Lawless is the very definition of badass. Bathed in blood and moonshine, gilded by Nick Cave’s rustic, textured musical score and brought alive by vivid and varied performances from an eclectic, grizzled cast, it’s one of the most enjoyable gangster pictures to come along in recent years. It follows the rough and tumble Bondurant brothers, fabled bootleggers who defy prohibition and run their product all over the aptly named ‘wettest county in the world’, until the greedy and very corrupt arm of the law snakes its way into the territory. The eldest and toughest is Forrest, a grumbly, shambling Tom Hardy who’s something of a gentle giant, until the straight razor comes out and he’s not. Jason Clarke is Howard the booze hound, who has sour mash coursing through his veins and a temper to prove it, and Shia Leboeuf, somewhat miscast, does his best as the youngest of the three. The three of them run an idyllic little manufacturing and distribution ring spiralling out of their county into the nearby area, until trouble comes looking for them, in the form of a monster played by Guy Pearce. Now when I say monster, I mean it.. when the villain in your film is scarier than Gary ‘Scary’ Oldman’s roguish supporting work, you know you have one hell of an antagonist. Pearce, sporting a sour look and parted hair that Moses could lead his people through, is Charlie Rakes, some kind of government dispatched deputy whose sole purpose is to make out heroic trio’s lives exceedingly difficult. Cheerfully sadistic and ruthlessly corrupt, Rakes is a bona fide moustache twirling psychopath and Pearce milks the role for all it’s worth, as per usual in his case. Oldman does appear briefly but memorably as lively gangster Floyd Banner, a shark of a businessman with a fondness for tommy gun tantrums resulting in vehicular mayhem. The film walks a line between two distinct tones, which can be seen in the characteristics of the pair of older brothers: Hardy is laid back, laconic and ambles along at his own pace, which any film set in the south just has to have a bit of, whilst Clarke is volatile, fired up and hot blooded, also needed in crime fare. So you have a relaxed, violent, wistful piece with a mean streak that sneaks up on you more than a few times. Any Ozark tale wouldn’t be complete without a romantic flair, as Hardy is swept off his feet by mysterious, plucky Jessica Chastain and Lebeouf has an eye for a beautiful Amish girl played by Mia Wasikowska. The film looks visually magnificent, shot in broad, sturdy rural strokes by Benoit Delhomme, and strict, impressive attention to detail is paid throughout. While maybe not as gritty or mythic as it wants to be, or at least as far as Hillcoat’s previous work has been (The Proposition remains the stomach churning gold standard), it’s a full blown, R rated crime picture, something more than welcome in an age when the genre has had its blood somewhat watered down. Highly recommended.