Wind River (2017)

When a young Native American girl is found dead and barefoot in the snow inside the Wind River reservation, her death brings back terrible memories for one officer whose daughter met a similar fate years earlier.

Wind RiverUSA
3.5*

Director:
Taylor Sheridan
Screenwriter:
Taylor Sheridan

Director of Photography:
Ben Richardson

Running time: 110 minutes

Everything the characters in Taylor Sheridan’s début feature film, Wind River, do happens against the backdrop of crushing whiteness. Even in spring, snow is ubiquitous inside the expansive Wind River Indian Reservation, which is more than twice the size of Rhode Island and located in the middle of Wyoming. And besides the handful of Indians (Native Americans) living off the land and according to their own rules and often abusing alcohol or harder drugs, the demographic landscape is as white as the physical one. Officially, the reservation is Indian territory, but the most gruesome things here are inevitably inextricably linked to the more powerful white population.

The opening scene is enough to send a chill down our collective spines. A young woman, visibly terror-stricken, is running through the snow barefoot as she tries to get away from something we can’t see. It is dark, and she is exhausted, but she keeps running, until she inhales the cold night air but exhales only blood. We never see anyone, or anything chase her.

The following day, by pure luck, a wildlife officer and professional hunts find her corpse as he tracks a puma that has been killing a nearby farmer’s steer and bringing its young along to teach them how to hunt. Although he is white, the officer, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), knows the reservation like the back of his hand and has a child with a Native American. We soon learn another child, his daughter, had died under similar circumstances a few years earlier. This is federal land and not under his jurisdiction, but he focuses his attention on solving this mystery of the barefoot woman, named Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille).

The autopsy reveals that Natalie died from a pulmonary haemorrhage, just as Cory had suspected. But more shockingly, we also learn that Natalie had likely been raped shortly before dying in the snow. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a fish-out-of-water FBI agent used to much warmer climes, is sent to investigate, as the bureau has jurisdiction in the case of a homicide on the reservation.

Unlike in Sicario, however, which Sheridan also wrote, the female character is not the prime focus. Women and their grim prospects on the reservation are an unmistakable undercurrent, but Cory’s silent struggle to cope with the loss of his daughter intelligently informs the way in which this plot develops. He may be a white character, but the death of his own daughter is no less important than Natalie’s death is to her father, Martin (Gil Birmingham).

The stern but soft-spoken Martin turns out to be one of Wind River‘s star attractions. The first time we meet him, he is very reluctant to share any of his thoughts or emotions with Jane, who is a stranger to the area. The atmosphere inside his house is cold, and all her attempts to gather information are fruitless. But then Cory arrives, and Martin’s tough façade suddenly crumbles. The entire scene offers a masterclass in gradually revealing the layers of emotion that can be hidden just beneath the surface but require the right person to draw them out.

This is a tight-knit community dealing with many problems relating to poverty and the lack of prospects all the way from cradle to (usually, an early) grave, and with a local police force of just six officers patrolling an area thousands of square kilometres in size, many crimes, from petty to gruesome, tend to fall through the cracks. Wind River is loosely based on a true story but is more effective if viewed from farther away, as a closing title card underscores how little the United States’ justice system thinks of its original peoples: Crime statistics are not compiled on the number of Native American women who go missing every year.

One big mistake the film makes is on the level of form: Towards the end of the film, it provides us with the point of view of an odious rapist. For a few inexplicable seconds, we see events from his perspective, which makes absolutely no sense in the context of this otherwise cautious and respectful production.

On the whole, however, Wind River‘s heart is in the right place. It surprises us in subtle ways and tells us its characters are complex, even if we don’t necessarily get to see what this complexity entails. A flashback towards the end of the film is gruesome but reveals that one individual is much more sensitive than others had said, which underscores the importance of digging for the truth. And the truth is that Native Americans in the United States, a little more than 100 years after the Congress rejected the idea of allowing the proposed Indian state of Sequoyah to join the Union, continue to be treated as a matter of the fringe. This has to be remedied if the country is ever going to be serious about forming a more perfect Union.

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

The most memorable donkey in the history of cinema is an infinitely better actor than his human counterparts in Robert Bresson’s emotionally stunted Au hasard Balthazar.

Au hasard BalthazarFrance
3*

Director:
Robert Bresson

Screenwriter:
Robert Bresson

Director of Photography:
Ghislain Cloquet

Running time: 95 minutes

Even though they almost always deal with profoundly spiritual issues, most of Robert Bresson’s films cannot be taken very seriously because the acting is so unbelievably bad. The French director famously used amateurs because he considered them blank canvases onto which it was easier to project fictional characters than would be the case with professional actors. And yet, the result, inevitably, is people uncomfortably saying lines that sound like a machine reading a page instead of an actual person speaking his/her mind. It’s diction without emotion, and the result is one laughably robotic line reading after another. Luckily, the main actor in Au hasard Balthazar is not a human but a donkey. And he is unaffected by these demands from Bresson, which makes the film at least somewhat acceptable to watch.

One of Bresson’s most highly acclaimed films (in the 2012 Sight and Sound critics’ poll, it took the 16th spot, handily beating out the director’s other entry on the list, Pickpocket, at no. 63), Au hasard Balthazar is certainly very successful at its anthropomorphism. But while we see the donkey as a person, it is very unfortunate that we also tend to view the lethargic characters as donkeys, or even worse, inanimate still lifes incapable of change.

The most grating example of this passivity is the non-donkey lead in the film, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). Early on, she tenderly places a crown of flowers around the head of her pet donkey, Balthazar. She sits back down on a bench and looks fondly at him. Behind her, a petty criminal, Gérard (François Lafarge), sneaks up and touches her hand. Marie’s response? She simply gets up and moves gingerly into the house. Looking back timidly at Gérard, she sees his gang of good-for-nothing buddies have joined him in brutally kicking poor Balthazar for their own amusement. She makes no effort to protect the donkey, nor does she display any particular revulsion at his suffering.

A few days later, after her family has hired out Balthazar to a baker, who coincidentally employs Gérard to deliver the bread, Marie spots the donkey alone next to the road. She strokes him, lovingly, as she always does, when she sees Gérard appear with a lascivious look on his face. She slowly moves back to her car, but Gérard follows her onto the passenger seat. But she says nothing, and she does nothing. Two tears roll down her cheeks. And then he rapes her.

A few days later, he does the same. Her response? She starts dating him.

This narrative progression is not only sickening but makes Marie one of the weakest characters ever to grace the silver screen. And worst of all, she does not demonstrate any trace of doubt or self-reflection or anger or shame. For her, resistance is not only futile but unimaginable.

But let’s forget about Marie for a moment, as she is clearly unworthy of our empathy and perhaps even discussion.

The plot advances episodically with very awkward transitions between its various parts. Balthazar grows older and is passed from one owner to the next, each of whom whips him, kicks him or smashes a chair over his back. Although Balthazar is merely a donkey, he often realises this treatment is inhumane and sets off for greener pastures. The same, alas, cannot be said for Marie. She may be a fictional human of flesh and blood but clearly has no common sense.

The actions (or rather, the lack of any action) around Balthazar continually become more and more peculiar. The first owner from whom the donkey manages to escape is a farmer. In its youth, the donkey’s trot turns into a full-fledged gallop while it is transporting a heavy load of hay, and the attendant instability causes the cart and its cargo to keel over. Within seconds, a group of rowdy townspeople, pitchforks in hand, arrive to take out their anger (?) on poor Balthazar, who manages to scamper away just in time. These people are cartoonish in every way, seemingly the French version of Frankenstein‘s mob, but there is no explanation for their sudden appearance.

Since she is one of the film’s two main characters, let’s return to Marie for a moment. Another head-scratching moment comes late in the film after she appears to have been gang raped. Naturally, Gérard is one of the aggressors. Our first glimpse of the devastating scene comes after the fact, when a group of people, including Marie’s childhood love and hopeful wannabe beau, Jacques, peer expressionlessly through a window as she sobs, bruised and naked, inside. His inaction is yet further proof that this film’s characters are wholly devoid of human emotion.

The film’s visual style relies on a great many close-ups – sometimes to an obsessive degree. The shots are mostly of hands and feet, whose meaning is open to interpretation, but also of Balthazar’s face. This kind of intimacy draws us close. We may not get any information about his state of mind, but by being closer to this victim of human cruelty and indifference, we feel we can almost stroke him and put him at ease. Such shots make us forget, even just for a moment, about the chilling interruption (a donkey braying) of Massimiliano Damerini’s otherwise gentle “Piano Sonata in A Major” that plays over the opening credits.

Au hasard Balthazar does not have the narrative focus of Bresson’s Pickpocket nor the visual clarity of his A Man Escaped. The motivation for its characters’ (in)action is mostly unclear or simply incomprehensible. The only character that appeals to our emotions is Balthazar. Sadly, his presence alone cannot lift the film out of the realm of mediocrity.

The Feast of Stephen (2009)

James Franco applies the language of cinema to adapt an Anthony Hecht poem and produces a work of sexual intensity that nicely dovetails with the films of dedicatee Kenneth Anger.

The Feast of StephenUSA
3.5*

Director:
James Franco

Screenwriter:
James Franco

Director of Photography:
Christina Voros

Running time: 266 seconds

James Franco’s The Feast of Stephen, a five-minute short film adapted from the eponymous poem by Anthony Hecht, is about sex, violence, violence as sex and sex as violence. Its ambiguous depiction of homoeroticism makes it difficult to determine whether or not it is a fantasy woven from reality, although the director overplays his hand in the second half with an unnecessarily literal portrayal of what was already quite apparent in the first half.

This wordless black-and-white short dedicated to experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger has something in common with one of the director’s earliest films, Fireworks, released more than 60 years earlier in 1947. Anger’s film was about a teenager (played by Anger himself) who goes in search of “relief” and finds it after wading through some sadomasochism. Like Fireworks, Franco’s film touches on the issue of shame and violence but also, eventually, sexual gratification, albeit tinged with violence and scatology, but luckily The Feast of Stephen takes a more serious tack and eschews the camp so often visible in Anger’s oeuvre, as Franco spares us the sight of milk-covered flesh.

The film opens on a basketball court, where four teenage boys – two of them shirtless – are passing the ball and shooting hoops. Along the fence comes a boy, the titular Stephen, wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved T-shirt and glasses – clearly, at odds with the rest of the group. Stephen stares at them, and something they look back at him, straight into the camera. He stares at them, and they start moving in slow motion, their youthful torsos rippling in the afternoon sun. He stares at them and notices how their hands playfully touch each other’s taut bodies. Suddenly, his desire is made manifest by more carnal images of the boys’ genitals. Now, Stephen is staring even more intently, and when one of them looks back, and the camera rushes towards him, it is clear Stephen has been caught out. He bolts off, his secret now out in the open, but the violence that ensues when the quartet of boys catch up to him also makes his innermost thoughts a reality.

The pounding that he gets all over his body, experienced most acutely in his groin, gradually becomes a pounding from behind. At this point, the implication is clear, but this is also the moment at which Franco goes too far in order to emphasise beyond a shadow of a doubt that this act of violence has a strong sexual undertone, as a cut suddenly removes all clothing, and we see Stephen being penetrated by the boys over whom he’d been tripping out. Of course, this moment is as imagined as the earlier moment of nudity that had briefly revealed the boys on court in the buff, and perhaps this prior image forms a sturdy means of support for the later scene, although both intellectually and emotionally it would have benefited from much tighter editing during the sodomy scene.

Despite its last-minute overreach, The Feast of Stephen is a seriously executed film that is thoroughly enjoyable and – unlike many of Franco’s other works – never overstays its welcome. The camera work has a grittiness that fits its subject very well, and while the lead actor comes across as more of a blank canvas than an actual character, the players’ movements are all beautifully coordinated. The film doesn’t have the grace or the sensuality of, say, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, but the brutality wrapped in fantasy makes for two easily accessible levels on which to process the events, and in a film less than five minutes long, that is not bad at all.

Sparrows (2015)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s second feature film provides an emotionally resonant look at a teenage boy’s coming of age on Iceland’s majestic Westfjords peninsula.

sparrowsIceland
4*

Director:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Screenwriter:
Rúnar Rúnarsson
Director of Photography:
Sophia Olsson

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Þrestir

The first time we see the teenage Ari’s face, he is singing in a 28-boystrong choir in Reykjavik. The hall in which they are performing is stately and white as snow, and as the rays of sunlight hit his neck, we see what appear to be light tufts of down. This boy is still very much an innocent angel, and although he will mostly remain that way for the duration of the film, the situations he is confronted with become ever more complex as he gradually learns what it is to be a man.

Sparrows (Þrestir), Rúnar Rúnarsson’s second feature film, doesn’t cover the usual bases of a coming-of-age story. Yes, in this case there is a divorce, an absent father, his first sexual encounter and so forth, but Rúnarsson’s perceptive eye for teenage politics in general and the loneliness of an outsider in particular, as well as frequent dips into melancholia that wash over the pale, almost inexpressive face of the main character, make this a wonderful glimpse of one boy’s life in the wilderness.

Said wilderness is Iceland’s Westfjords, the country’s large peninsula to the northwest, where cliffs rise up sharply out of the ocean and appear to be much more imposing than their actual height would lead one to believe. The town where almost all of the action is set is the hamlet of Flateyri, although shots of nearby Bolungarvík also make up the fictional town here. Everyone here knows each other, but this familiarity is worlds removed from Ari’s former life in the capital with his mother, who has now upped and moved to Africa with her Danish husband.

In spite of the talk of hunting, the fighting and the sex, it ultimately becomes clear to Ari that being a man does not mean being macho. Being a man does not even mean one has to be responsible. However, it does entail dealing honestly with one’s own shortcomings, and that is why the film’s final image – an intimate hug between two men – is ultimately so incredibly powerful. On three occasions, the ethereal sounds of a piece of music by Kjartan Sveinsson lift Sparrows into the realm of the transcendental, flawlessly complementing the religious songs that Ari sings on multiple occasions, including, most strikingly, all alone inside a giant water tower. His solos bring almost heartbreaking calm to the turmoil that we know he is experiencing on the inside.

The film has countless small moments that are not highlighted but stand firm as milestones that line Ari’s journey towards maturity. While there will be a great deal of focus on a particularly traumatic scene late in the plot that will have the viewer’s stomach churning with empathy, other smaller incidents are equally important. Ari’s father, Gunnar, who has drowned his sorrows in alcohol since divorcing Ari’s mother, is ill-equipped to take car of his teenage son on the cusp of adulthood but out of sorts in this new landscape. Every moment that Ari considers unique is somehow spoiled by his father who has a similar moment with other characters, from having sex with the same woman to sharing a jacuzzi and even the house with too many other people.

Throughout the film, the towering cliffs – their feet often shrouded in mist – are ever-present, seemingly about to overwhelm the insignificant figures in the foreground. In fact, our very first impression of the area is a shot of the tiny airplane flying almost too close along the fjord walls before landing at the airport in Ísafjörður. This image is followed almost immediately by a shot of Ari waiting for his father, as he has done for much of his life, at the arrivals gate.

While main actor Atli Óskar Fjalarsson is very good, the only letdown is the scenes when he is supposed to express violent rage, which unfortunately comes across as somewhat contrived. This issue is perhaps understandable given that these moments turn very sharply away from the general trajectory of the plot and the overall restrained behaviour of the character. The quieter scenes, of which there are many, are much more convincing and more effective at drawing the viewer in close to Ari.

Sparrows are never seen nor spoken of, but the title most probably refers to the small birds because of their biblical meaning of being among the smallest and least valuable of animals while nonetheless still cared for and watched over by God. While this explanation is informative, it is unclear why the title takes the plural form.

Paulina (2015)

Rape victim seeks to understand reasons for assailant’s behaviour, but despite creativity, depiction ultimately just skims the surface of complexity.

la-patota-paulina

Argentina
3*

Director:
Santiago Mitre
Screenwriters:
Mariano Llinás

Santiago Mitre
Director of Photography:
Gustavo Biazzi

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: La patota 

There are always at least two sides to a story where more than one person is involved, and in the case of Paulina by Argentine filmmaker Santiago Mitre, looking at and weighing all the sides can be discomfiting to anyone intent on clinging to black-and-white beliefs. The exercise may even produce immense confusion in the viewer looking to reconcile all these points of view.

The film itself is not confusing; on the contrary, even though it sometimes jumps back in time to cover events once more but from a different perspective, the story is very simple: Paulina, who has started her Ph.D. in law and is also the daughter of a judge, has decided to leave Buenos Aires and head back to her hometown in the Northeast of the country, close to the border with Paraguay, to teach human rights and democracy at a small school. The children, most of them of indigenous heritage, are sceptical of her presence, and the first classes get off to a bad start when Paulina seeks to discuss the concept democracy and is quickly confronted with a different outlook from these children who feel that white Argentines do not or cannot represent their needs in the system. 

One night, when Paulina drives back home on her motorcycle, she is attacked. Suddenly, without warning, the film flips back on itself to show us characters we had not seen before. A young man, Ciro (Cristian Salguero), who works at a sawmill, learns that his girlfriend has broken up with him to hook up with a man from outside the community. He is outraged, and when he sees someone driving a motorcycle in the dark, he takes it to be her and encourages his friends to rape the woman.

This is where the film’s path converges with the previous story line, as we see Paulina mistaken for the girlfriend and her being gang-raped by the group of boys, most of whom attend her class. The tense build-up, covered very competently by the director and his cameraman, who use short takes that positively vibrate with adrenaline, as well as the shocking incident itself, leaves us stunned, but Paulina’s subsequent actions turn the film into an unexpected examination of the different ways in which people can respond to the same events.

At the centre of the story is Paulina, who feels a desperate need not only to teach but to understand the people in this community. This understanding, we come to see, extends to her rapists and their situation, as well as a questioning of the rationale for punishment as meted out by the law. Her personal life takes a major hit, as well, because of her way of dealing with the fall-out of the rape, but she is determined that the cold rules of the law not be applied to people if the judicial outcome is more or less as pointlessly cruel as the act itself.

Such thinking sends her father, who had his hopes pinned on her to follow in his footsteps, flying into a rage, and we can understand his concern for his daughter’s personal and professional situation very well. On the margins, there is also Paulina’s boyfriend, Alberto (Esteban Lamothe from Villegas), who finds her drifting away from him with every new revelation.

At the same time, it becomes clear throughout Paulina’s arguments that she is the one who should decide over her own life, just as the people affected by the government’s decisions should also be allowed to decide on their own rules. The film does not answer the question whether one should intervene if someone makes a “wrong” decision but instead highlights the fact that people have their reasons, and just because we do not understand them does not make them irrelevant.

Paulina is at its best when it shifts the audience’s empathy between the father and the daughter, and the departure from the linear narrative is effective in this regard, although it would have had a greater impact if it had been used more than just a couple of times. As things stand, it seems more like a gimmick, which is unfortunate.

The film handles its difficult material, including the brutal plot elements of a rape and the mulling of an abortion, but also the marginalisation of a community with little formal education, very competently. There is also fertile ground for discussion, especially about Paulina’s decisions along the way, which seem ever more difficult to comprehend, both for those around her and the audience.

In its effort to create ambiguity by showing us the world is more complex than we might like to believe, however, Paulina only skims the surface of a number of important issues. Had any one of them been exploited with greater care, this may have been an engaging film worthy of deep reflection, but instead, its reluctance to dig below the surface rather than merely hint at the turmoil makes this an incomplete production, well-intentioned though it certainly is.

Viewed at the San Sebastián International Film Festival 2015