(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Harsh, uncompromising but satisfying, Wind River is another success for writer/director Taylor Sheridan, who tackles the difficult subject of violence against native women in a thriller that pulls no punches. Jeremy Renner stars as a man with specific skills that become very useful once a murder is reported on a reserve—being a skilled tracker/hunter turns out to be essential when the FBI can’t be bothered to send more than a token junior agent. Directed soberly, Wind River does tackle difficult topics in discussing the way violence can strike “even the good kids” and the devastating legacy that such deaths can cause. At the same time, it’s a bit of a macho revenge tale in which the unknown assailants of a revolting crime and tracked, caught and made to suffer. I’m not overly bothered by the premise that sees a white man bring justice on native land—the film clearly shows the protagonist’s pre-existing sympathies for his native ex-in-laws, and the film does leave plenty of development for its native characters. Renner makes the most of his existing action persona, while Graham Greene is up to his usual high standards. Elizabeth Olsen feels-out of place, but that’s the point of the film. Kelsey Chow has a short but striking role. With Sicario and Hell and High Water, actor-turned-screenwriter Sheridan fast established himself as a writer to watch for mature character-driven thrillers of the sorts we’ve grown to miss in a fantasy-saturated cinema marketplace. With his directorial debut Wind River, he takes it to the next level—now let’s see what next he has in store.
(On TV, August 2016) In an age of CGI-fuelled extravagant spectacles, you’d think that a special-effect-free western Dances with Wolves would be underwhelming … but it’s not. A sweeping western epic, this is a movie that still feels great today largely because it so grounded. You can compare the film’s standout buffalo hunting sequence to the SFX-heavy stampede in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (as sacrilegious it may be to even mention both movies in the same paragraph) and there’s no comparison: the best special effect remains reality. It helps that the film itself is solidly put together: Dances with Wolves remains director/star Kevin Costner’s most notable achievement, and still one of his best roles to date. (Contrarily to his other career-best The Bodyguard, his stoic persona hadn’t fully solidified by then, and he seems more adept in the various facets of his role.) There are also notable roles for Graham Greene, and the lovely Mary McConnell. While Dances with Wolves’ pacing can be maddening throughout its three hours, it does help create the sense of scale that the story requires: As shown by the film’s title, it’s very much a character-driven piece set against the immensity of the frontier, as a white man comes to adopt the native way of life. As such, I think that it has weathered the past quarter-century better than other similar pieces. From my limited white-guy privilege, interrogating the story through a white-saviour perspective doesn’t lead to a full-blown condemnation, since the protagonist doesn’t do all that much to save “the others” (arguably, he only creates trouble for them along the way), and “the others” are portrayed with some nuance. While I’m not a natural audience for westerns (nor assimilation narratives, and especially not three-hour films), Dances With Wolves flows better than I expected, and remains just as respectable today as it was back in 1990. It’s still an impressive achievement, even without computer-generated hordes of buffalos.