Director: Taylor Sheridan
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cinematographer: Ben Richardson
Producer: Matthew George, Basil Iwanyk, Peter Berg, Wayne L. Rogers, Elizabeth A. Bell
by Jon Cvack
Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut took Best Director at Cannes, offering one of the earliest Oscar buzzed films of the year. Impressed with Hell and Higher Water (2016) and blown away by Sicario (2015), I was excited to check out the latest of Sheridan’s looK at the flyover states, which capped off his unofficial American trilogy. Unfortunately, the forfeiture of two great and veteran directors fell victim to the same results that ambitious actor/writers often experience.
The film opens in the Wind River Indian Reservation with a US Fish and Wildlife Service hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) who’s investigating a calf that’s allegedly been mauled by a mountain lion. Lambert tracks down the animal on a snowmobile, wearing white fatigues and having a lot of cool guns. Miles into the middle of nowhere he comes across the body of a dead eighteen year old girl, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), who has asphyxiated on her own blood as her lungs froze while running for miles in -20 degree weather.
Lambert heads back to tell the local Native American chief Ben (Graham Greene; no last name for some reason; important to note for later), who then wait for the FBI, where sure enough, a young white and attractive woman, James Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up, flying in from Vegas and completely ill-prepared for Wyoming - somehow smart enough to become an FBI agent but not smart enough to check the weather in a place that seems fairly obvious to check the weather for. She also fails to comprehend or agree with Cory's theory; again making me question her FBI credentials.
At the autopsy, we get our first taste of the poor direction, as although Natalie has clearly been raped, there is no definitive sign of a murder. This enrages Banner who can’t more field officers unless it’s a murder (which left me wondering how strict the FBI actually would be in this situation; if she called a colleague and explained the legality versus the reality of the situation it seems somebody, at least one person, would probably show up, or at the very least, keep tabs on the potential of a sexual assault; especially after the subsequent attempted murders). After the news, Banner storms out of the autopsy, and in a long wide shot we watch as she looks so heavily like she's acting pissed rather than seeming actually pissed; mostly because she moves in the way someone pretending to be upset would move (head down, hand on chin, staring down, etc.). I don’t blame Olsen who has done some incredible work, so much as Sheridan for refusing to see that it was more important to contain Banner’s rage; namely that maybe a lack of physical reaction would be the more powerful choice, especially given Olsen's powerful eyes. At this point, with her lack of foresight, insight, or self-control, she seems like a needlessly weak woman. This doesn’t mean I needed some badass Fed woman so much as a person that’s not entirely worthless to the investigation.
Immediately I was thinking about Clarice Starling and Foster/Demme’s ability to create a character that had complex deficiencies and yet who was determined to do good, both for the sake of the families and to prove her own worth. Banner evolves to greater strength, yet in the end, she’ll rely on Lambert to save her life and kill the bad guy.
Which brings me to Lambert, who’s divorced, has to take his kid for a few days amidst all the chaos; all while trying not to argue with his Native American ex-wife Wilma (Julia Jones) who we don’t really get to know anything about (which will also be important later). Lambert and Banner go off to solve the case, uncovering a complex rape-murder web that took place in an oil company’s onsite trailer housing site, all operating on the reservation. On the way, they meet some drug addict Native American kids, one being Natalie's brother, who’s living in a crumbling trailer and learns the news of his sister’s passing by piecing together a grammatical error on Lambert’s part, providing an exchange of what I’ve had to have heard a hundred times in Walker Texas Ranger. After Lambert uses the word "was" in describing Natalie, the brother cries out - “Was?...Was?!...What do you mean ‘was’?! [crying]...What do you mean ‘was’?!” and so he cries.
These might seem like minor details, but in a film that should be exploring a significant issue; that is the plight of modern Native American communities, it instead falls into trope and melodrama, pulling you straight out of the movie. In the end we learn that Natalie had a boyfriend Ben (Jon Bernthal) who really loved and cared for her, though when post-coital in bed one night, his oil buddy friends came back from the fields, with one completely fucked up and crossing the bro line, trying to peek at a naked Natalie, causing a fight to break out where him and his buddies then take turns raping Natalie, in one of the most brutal rape scenes I’ve seen in a long time.
There was a recent open letter about ending rape scenes in film and television, and counter to giving movies with characters who smoke an R rating, I completely support a mission to try and phase these moments out in favor of newer ideas. When I really think about it, with the exception of historical/biopic pieces, I can’t really see why we’d ever need to show a rape in a film ever again. It’s not that rape shouldn’t be included in the story, so much as I don’t think it ever needs to be explicitly shows. It’s a bold statement, and sure I can think of highbrow films that have done it appropriately, but all too often it’s done for shock effect, providing a plot device that has been explored all too often. Filmmakers need to return to the ways of implying rather than showing these horrific scenes, as after decades of watching them, I just don’t think there’s much more progress to be made in the ways of portraying sexual assault.
After being raped, Natalie Hansen then escapes, running as far as she could in the freezing cold until she collapsed and died. This is all told in flashback, and even now I’m not sure if the characters knew this information, or just we, the audience, understood it. After the brutal scene, a fairly cool and completely implausible shootout takes place between the oil men and the State Police, local Officers, Ben and Banner. I could not buy that anyone would think that shooting a bunch of Federal and State police would possibly lead to anything more than a few weeks freedom, and again it seemed like there could have been more motivation than simply that the oil men didn’t want to get caught; something should have motivated such a tremendous risk. Why wouldn’t they just play it cool, wait for them to leave, and as their walking away, they mow them down? It was a classic case of plot serving.
And yet ultimately, what’s most enraging about the film is the end title card, mentioning how Native American communities don’t keep track of missing person statistics and so no one knows how many Native American women are missing. It’s such an ambiguous fact that means nothing; a shallow gesture to the struggles of the Native American culture; especially because in the end, the only two Native American portrayed in the film was Lambert’s ex-wife Wilma and Ben (with no last name), who we learn close to nothing about, and Natalie, who we saw dead, then dressed in her underwear and then brutally raped. Why couldn’t Banner have been a Native American FBI officer, or any person of color; someone that would’ve been more intimately connected to the victim? The same applies to Lambert - given his job as protecting the Native land from lions, why couldn’t he have been a Native American? It played so heavily like the 90s Southern race-procedurals, Ghosts in the Mississippi (1996) or Mississippi Burning (1988), in which the white people come to town to save the black community. For a film that concludes by raising awareness about a highly underrepresented section of America, I'm not sure how much whiteness could be pressed into the story.
BELOW: Here's the thing - this is a great scene; it just doesn't make any sense at all
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