Saturday, September 23, 2017

Movie Reviews: Wind River, Jackals

Wind River
directed by Taylor Sheridan
Just like the movie Sunlight Jr., reviewed here, Wind River is a film that shows that entertainment and social messages can mix. Films do not have to be painfully and obviously didactic to communicate their message. Films can be thrilling without being stupid. When you make a film that discusses, however obliquely, the impact of structural racism, some people will immediately become defensive. They will point out that as far as THEY are concerned they're innocent of malicious intent or actions. So then the film never gets a chance to entertain because some audience members have already closed their minds to the director's or writer's message. On the other hand, some films that include themes about racism put all the blame on individual bigots who are walking stereotypes of racialized enmity. Although people like this do exist, they are usually not the major problem anymore. Their film depiction allows the mainstream audience to disassociate and feel better about themselves, even if they have the same viewpoints. Wind River walks the line between these two poles. Its villains are bad but are still recognizably human in their evil. 

The good guys can suffer from a racialized blindness. This is highlighted in a powerful scene between a white female FBI agent and the father of a murdered Native American girl. The white woman is arrogant and naive enough to question the parents' grief. The next scene makes it clear that this was a mistake based on the agent's bad assumptions. Her good intentions don't prevent her from saying the wrong thing. And when someone hurts you it doesn't always matter to you that they didn't mean it.

And speaking of the FBI agent I liked that Wind River didn't make her a superheroine. She is good at some things and bad at others. This movie is not preachy, but it is powerful. Wind River re-unites Avengers stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. I hadn't seen Olsen in a dramatic meaty cleavage free role so her turn here was new to me. Impressive. I will go back and look up some of her previous serious work.

It's a horrible thing to lose or be alienated from your culture. In different ways that is what happened to Native Americans and Black Americans. The legacy of defeat and dispossession leaves a mark. I think that self-loathing can be activated in different ways because of that. Wind River links the two communities through the pain of memory. It makes this linkage explicit by having one of the bad guys refer to the Native Americans as "prairie n******s".  Another character cautions his Arapaho loved one not to travel through certain communities. She may be harassed or worse. You don't just get over slavery or genocide. And when you're without hope it's very easy to engage in self-destructive activities. That would seem to be the case for many of the people in both communities. People without hope hurt themselves and become easy prey for two legged predators. 


Cory Lambert (Renner) is a taciturn US Fish and Wildlife agent who works on the Wind River Indian (Arapaho) Reservation in Wyoming. Blunt people might say that Cory has gone native. He identifies with the Arapaho, calling them his people. His ex-wife is Arapaho. And his son, though 1/2 Arapaho, is being raised to identify as Arapaho. Cory is a hunter and tracker. His primary responsibility is to manage the predator population (wolves, coyotes, mountain lions) and prevent them from harming cattle. This is not a pretty job. Cory finds the frozen corpse of an Arapaho woman. This woman, Natalie (Kelsey Chow) has been beaten and raped. She is the daughter of Cory's good friend Martin (Gil Birmingham). Natalie was the friend of Cory's late daughter. Cory's daughter was similarly murdered three years ago, something that greatly contributed to his marital breakup. It's Federal land so the FBI has jurisdiction over felony crimes. But because it's only a dead Arapaho woman the FBI doesn't send a senior agent, just the closest one. 

Rookie FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) gets lost trying to get to the reservation. She has no experience working murder cases. As she explains to the skeptical/sarcastic tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) she's the best that the Feds will provide. She may be inexperienced, occasionally insensitive and woefully unprepared for the bitter Wyoming winter, but she cares. 


It's good that Jane cares because the medical examiner confirms Cory's previously revealed theory--Natalie died not from the rape or beating but from pulmonary hemorrhage caused by breathing sub-zero air. Therefore, the medical examiner won't say it's a homicide. Without a homicide ruling Jane can't get more FBI resources. But Jane and Cory both know that a woman doesn't run barefoot for miles at night unless someone was trying to kill her. Jane decides to stay on the case. Ben (who knows the people) and Cory (who knows the land) help Janie in the investigation. They learn that Natalie had a boyfriend, a non-Arapaho named Matt (Jon Bernthal) who worked on the oil drilling site. And the hunt begins. If Cory is nothing else, he's a hunter and a tracker. The film's true star is the harsh unforgiving wintry Wyoming landscape. The director and cinematographer bring this out in so many different shots, including but not limited to blinding snowstorms, the sudden death of a coyote, the snow covered rocks of a mountain, or the brief cozy reprieve of a warm cabin. You can almost feel the cold air through the screen.

I liked that the film didn't do the obvious with Renner's and Olsen's characters. Cory is rather obviously processing some heavy grief. He still has feelings for his ex. He's not healthy yet. And this is even more true for Martin. Martin gets the film's best lines. I wouldn't say this is an ensemble piece because it isn't. But this isn't Dances With Wolves or Avatar either.  As one Arapaho bluntly puts it, "Why does 'help' from you people always start with insults? "  The film's dialogue is sparse but impactful. The film reminded me of Louis C.K.'s joke/observation about the dangers that women face when they are intimate with men, given the size and aggression differentials. It is too often a leap of faith. This is a moody film but one that has its optimistic points. People who believe in individual striving or in communal struggle will find things here to support their pov. You could also view this movie as an extended meditation on loss. How do people or communities deal with this? But ultimately this film is a classic Western, complete with a high noon showdown. This may still be in theaters in your area. Check it out.
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Jackals
directed by Kevin Greutert
This film was a disappointment. The siege or home invasion is a classic theme in horror films. People in such situations do silly or stupid things that both amuse and well horrify us. That's understandable. If you don't expect to be fighting for your life then unless you happen to be a member of the combat branches of the armed forces, a mercenary or some other person who deals out death and destruction on a regular basis then you're likely going to make some mistakes. Or maybe you're the secret psychopath in your group of family and friends. Once threatened your inner beast emerges and causes so much carnage that at the end all your loved ones can say is that they're glad you're on their side. That's also a pretty regular theme in horror/thriller movies. The quiet (wo)man gets his or her switch flipped and opens up hell on the bad guys. But what sort of people do something incredibly dangerous and then sit around waiting for bad things to happen without even bothering to prepare themselves? The people in this movie, that's who.

We see in the movie intro that a Satanic cult gets members to murder their own families as proof of their dedication. Nice. Well a cult deprogrammer named Jimmy Levine (Stephen Dorff) has worked with a CEO named Andrew Powell (Johnathan Schaech) to kidnap Andrew's son Justin (Ben Sullivan) from the cult and bring him to the family super secret log cabin where the rest of the family, Mother (Deborah Kara Unger), brother (Nick Roux) and fiancee (Chelsea Ricketts) will try to talk some sense into Justin. There are problems that were obvious to me just 15 minutes into the movie. Jimmy Levine is working alone. Why would he be working alone? It's not exactly cheap to hire cult deprogrammers. And Jimmy isn't really a physically imposing guy. So why wouldn't Jimmy have a whole crew of muscleheads with him? Failing that, it seems like he should have had at least a couple of men as large as refrigerators tagging along. Instead he only takes Andrew with him when he kidnaps Justin. 


Isn't allowing the customer, who is presumably not licensed to do this work, to help you on your job just opening yourself up to liability? And again, not that I'm like a cult deprogramming expert or anything but given how ugly this cult is and how insane Justin is, why would you even want his family to see him at this point. But most importantly, why would you take Justin to a place that he already knew about and most definitely told his cult buddies about? That's just stupid. It's almost as stupid as using your money to hire cult deprogrammers and buy vacation cabins but apparently forget to purchase a few firearms. Maybe it's just Michigan but most of the people I know who own cabins up North also have multiple rifles, pistols and shotguns on site. Anyone trying to storm their private property will wish they hadn't. But in this movie the good guys are unarmed, surprised and unprepared for the cult attack. And they can't even call for help. 

The movie tries to invoke the classic Straw Dogs, but it didn't work. Justin is such a completely vile person that I couldn't understand why his parents wanted him back. The film is at least twenty minutes too long. The actors give it the old college try but poor writing and bad lighting make this a film you're better off skipping. Watch You're Next, The Strangers, or maybe even Funny Games if you want to see the home invasion motif done right.
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