WIND RIVER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, a Rape, Disturbing Images, and Language

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene & Martin Sensmeier

Taylor Sheridan has been making quite the impression in the independent film scene. He made waves with his script for the bleaker-than-bleak cartel thriller SICARIO (which I’d rank as one of my favorite thrillers of the 2010s) and received praise for penning the modern-western HELL OR HIGH WATER. Sheridan finally directs one of his own scripts in mystery-thriller WIND RIVER. The premise for this movie sounds very simple, but Sheridan is prone to breaking conventions and loves to focus on complex characters. His unique style of storytelling elevates this film far beyond its seemingly clichéd set-up.

The body of a young woman has been found on the desolate, snow-covered landscape of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker who’s used to hunting and killing predators. Saddled with a deeper emotional motivation than you might initially think, Cory takes to hunting down the person responsible for this homicide. Fish-out-of-water FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) also finds herself facing unfair odds in a no man’s land where back-up is a myth and survival is key. Together, Jane and Cory must piece together the clues behind this mysterious death, but Wind River’s harsh elements and tense environment are stacked against them.

Much like his previous two screenplays, WIND RIVER is a film that works because of its attention to characters, a genuine emotional core, and tense atmosphere. Though it’s not nearly as dark as SICARIO, I’d argue that WIND RIVER is a step higher than HELL OR HIGH WATER. This thriller isn’t perfect in its pacing, because there are a few scenes that noticeably drag a little longer than they needed to. However, the end result is a riveting thriller that will frequently punch you in the gut and constantly keep your eyeballs glued to the screen.

Jeremy Renner might have put in his finest performance yet as tracker-turned-investigator Cory. The film feeds us little vague tidbits about Renner’s character’s past and shows enough respect to let the audience put those puzzle pieces together for ourselves, though we do get a scene where more revealing details come out. Still, this slight bit of exposition keeps things enough of a mystery to remain realistic. Renner’s character has a bad past and this makes him a stronger protagonist to bring his own brutal style of justice to the proceedings. I was rooting for him the whole way through and found his final on-screen moments to be especially satisfying in two totally different emotional ways.

Elizabeth Olsen is the fish-out-of-water FBI agent, who’s appropriately outraged and concerned when she realizes the many injustices that the Wind River residents have to endure in a search for justice. Olsen’s Jane starts off as a tad unlikable, but gradually grows on the viewer as she begins to understand that she’s stumbled into especially dangerous territory and is investigating a case that nobody else wants to touch. Gil Birmingham gave a strong performance in last year’s HELL OR HIGH WATER as the Sheriff’s Native sidekick, but steals scenes here as a grieving father who has tons of baggage.

WIND RIVER’s unique setting adds a lot to the proceedings as well. The harsh, frozen elements are a constant plot point in this mystery and manage to pack in unexpected social commentary about the current sad state of how Native Americans are treated. This message isn’t overly preachy or forced in any way, but instead serves as a further powerhouse to the already depressing tale. The film is well-shot and there’s a constant air of menace lurking around this deadly white location. The mystery is further heightened by small clues that lead to big revelations. One particular moment, that cuts from a flashback to present day, is especially masterful. This carefully edited sequence racks up the suspense by giving the viewer damning information that the main characters are about to discover.

The biggest reason why WIND RIVER succeeds as a thriller, a mystery, and a great film in general is because it has a living, breathing emotional core. The characters, writing, atmosphere, and feelings elevate the material far above its meager set-up. I cared about these people. I cared about their plights. I wanted to see this mystery solved. I wanted to see justice delivered in a satisfying way. I gave a shit about every single thing in this film and that’s why Taylor Sheridan is a cinematic storyteller to watch. He forces his viewers to care by connecting them to believable fleshed-out characters and seemingly simple stories that are emotionally complicated. WIND RIVER is a must-see!

Grade: A

HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Violence, Language throughout and brief Sexuality

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Directed by: David Mackenzie

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Katy Mixon, Gil Birmingham, Christopher W. Garcia, Dale Dickey & Kevin Rankin

I wasn’t exactly stoked for HELL OR HIGH WATER, though I had heard nothing but great things about it. The poster looked dull, the title was generic, and the trailer seemed to indicate this was destined to go straight to video-on-demand. In an unexpected twist of events, this film has gained a lot of momentum since its Cannes premiere, sports a staggering 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and is now playing in theaters across the nation. Having now seen HELL OR HIGH WATER, I can say that it’s a lot better than the marketing would indicate, but isn’t entirely free of clichés. From a sheer entertainment level, you’re not likely to care that much about its few minor flaws.

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Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced father trying to save his family’s farm from foreclosure. Tanner (Ben Foster) is Toby’s ex-con brother who would do anything to support his family. Together, these two brothers hatch a nearly foolproof series of bank robberies that involve robbing the branches of the very bank that’s trying to foreclose on their farm and then paying them back with their own money. Every tiny detail (from the getaway car to trading the money at a casino) is carefully ironed out, but the pair didn’t count on determined Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) to come looking for them. Aided by his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), Hamilton is looking for one last hurrah before his retirement. The two lawmen and two criminals start on a path towards each other that can only end in violence.

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Despite having a premise that sounds like it packs plenty of action from start to finish, HELL OR HIGH WATER mainly focuses on its characters and the parallel storylines that feed into one another. The story of Toby and Tanner trying to save their farm through illegal means is highly entertaining and tense, but so is Hamilton and Alberto’s hunt for them. We see both sides of the conflict and our sympathies are undoubtedly tested when the two forces eventually collide. Though both storylines use a few well-worn clichés, it should be noted that the film often takes an unconventional route and indulges in quiet moments between the characters. This is especially true in the final minutes, which didn’t at all play out like I expected.

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The interactions and conversations wouldn’t be nearly as fun or tense to watch if we didn’t care about these characters. HELL OR HIGH WATER has stellar performances across the board. Chris Pine may struggle with certain accents (see THE FINEST HOURS), but he pulls off a convincing Southern drawl and makes Toby into a compelling anti-hero worthy of the viewer’s sympathies. Though he’s much more of a reckless psycho, Ben Foster’s Tanner has his share of emotional scenes and ultimately comes off as a complex character…even if he’s hard to like.

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Jeff Bridges is fantastic as Ranger Hamilton. This is the best Jeff Bridges has been in years (to say the least) and stands out as one of the best performances of his entire career. Gil Birmingham is great as Hamilton’s sidekick, who gets a lot of genuine laughs to ease the escalating tension. The constant “good” roles of Bridges and Birmingham contrasted with Pine and Foster’s “bad” roles make for an old-fashioned western feeling in an otherwise complicated crime thriller. The beautifully shot Texas setting (which is actually Eastern New Mexico substituting for West Texas) certainly lends to that as well, with isolation being a key factor in many scenes.

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HELL OR HIGH WATER has a few faults. A couple of plot developments are very predictable. After all, there are only so many ways that this story can play out. However, the conclusion left me surprised in a very pleasant way. The message about banks being the real bad guys is also a bit too heavy-handed. We see frequent loan ads and “for sale” signs on the road, a scummy bank manager is used as comic relief, bystanders commend the bank robberies, and the looming threat of foreclosure is omnipresent. I felt like these bits were laid on a bit too thick and momentarily smothered the script’s mostly clever nature.

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In spite of its problems, HELL OR HIGH WATER is a great piece of entertainment. The film has lots of witty banter, tense moments, quiet emotional scenes and complex characters worth rooting for (on both sides of the law). The cinematography has a naturalistic beauty that lends a classier feeling to the endearingly old-fashioned main conflict. Though clichés weigh the film down ever so slightly, HELL OR HIGH WATER is a solid modern western mixed with a tense crime thriller. If that sounds up your alley, then give this film a shot!

Grade: A-

SICARIO (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Grisly Images, and Language

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya & Jeffrey Donovan

SICARIO is a movie that’s been gaining steam for a while now. Premiering at Cannes and receiving huge word-of-mouth, Denis Villeneuve’s latest thriller has slowly unfolded in a handful of theaters across the nation over these past two weeks. It’s now finally receiving a nationwide roll-out and I can say that this one was more than worth the wait. Violent, grim, and bleak as hell, SICARIO is one of the most original thrillers to hit in the past few years. It’s up there with NIGHTCRAWLER and PRISONERS. I can safely say that this has a spot reserved on my Best of 2015 list!

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SWAT agent Kate Macer is on what appears to be a routine kidnapping raid when she discovers a house of horrors. This crime scene includes corpses in the walls and a bomb in the backyard. It turns out this suburban home from hell is owned by someone with ties to the Mexican cartel. Desperate to bring the monsters behind this grisly site to justice, Kate is recruited onto a special tactical team that aims to bring down a notorious cartel lord and his cronies through any means necessary. However, by-the-books Kate is not fully prepared for the possibly illegal and morally questionable areas that her mission will take her to.

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If there’s anything to be said for Denis Villeneuve’s thrillers, it’s that they all maintain the same sense of suffocating unease. SICARIO opens with a disturbing bang and never lets up on its constant tension for the rest of the running time. This movie doesn’t give you room to breathe as it feels like potential chaos and violence could be waiting around every corner…and in this film, they usually are. Much like 2013’s stellar PRISONERS was a morality play crossed with a tense kidnapping thriller, SICARIO stirs up troubling ethical and moral questions with what, in any other hands, could have been a just another bombastic over-the-top action flick. Villeneuve’s brooding approach to every scene had me clenching my arm rests for the entire film. He also does something with a side plot involving a minor character that I truly loved, but I refuse to spoil anything by going into specific details.

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As far as the cast goes, everyone is perfect. Adopting a convincing American accent, Emily Blunt portrays the story’s only voice of reason as Kate. As she encounters more and more horrific scenes in the escalating hunt for the cartel, you can see the damage that it’s inflicting on both Kate’s psyche and health. A similar transformation seems to occur in Blunt’s face as she appears traumatized, broken, and physically ill by the time the film hits its third act. Josh Brolin dominates every scene he’s in as the secret team’s questionable leader. You can sense of the scummy nature of this character from the minute you first see him and a smirking Brolin uses that to his full advantage. Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, the team’s mysterious second-in-command, and he’s never been better. Combining the characteristics of a rough anti-hero with the mannerisms of a certain Cormac McCarthy villain, Del Toro becomes a wholly compelling, sympathetic character with an absolutely terrifying side to him.

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SICARIO might turn a few people off in its sheer darkness. This film is bleak! Seeing as it’s about a team hunting a cartel, you would expect some gruesome imagery. However, the attitude of which this movie treats those moments makes it so much more disturbing and brilliant. This is a film where a van full of characters drive by hanging mutilated bodies and it only results in a few passing comments, because it’s not out of the ordinary in hunting cartels. Villeneuve knows precisely what to leave off the screen as well, resulting in the implication of certain scenes being far worse than anything we could have possibly seen. The story goes into extremely grim places and that’s especially true of a final act that left me in a stunned silence.

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SICARIO is an uncompromising masterpiece of a thriller. Fueled by stellar performances, a suffocating sense of impending dread, and a script that will have you thinking about it long after it’s over, SICARIO simply needs to be seen to be believed. Between this film, ENEMY, and PRISONERS, director Denis Villeneuve has become one of my favorite modern filmmakers. SICARIO is not only one of the best films of the year, it’s also one of the most thought-provoking and intense thrillers that I’ve ever laid eyes upon.

Grade: A+

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