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.

Rams (2015)

Two elderly, taciturn sheep farmers who are also brothers have to work together in the face of a plague that hits their remote valley in northern Iceland.

hrutar-ramsIceland
4*

Director:
Grímur Hákonarson
Screenwriter:
Grímur Hákonarson
Director of Photography:
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Hrútar

The first scene of Rams, a film from Iceland that falls squarely within the country’s canon of beautiful and always-eccentric films of late, tells it all: In a valley called Bárðardalur, in the north Icelandic countryside, Gudmundur (“Gummi”), an old, bearded farmer, finds a ram among his sheep that is not his. It has clearly strayed across the fence that separates his flock from that of his neighbour. He calls one of them by name, strokes its face and then proceeds to take a ram into his neighbour’s house in silent protest at the transgression that occurred.

The neighbour turns out to be his brother, the similarly bearded, equally aged Kristinn (“Kiddi”). The two have not spoken for 40 years, and although the reason for this is never explicitly stated, the resentment from both sides is clear as day. Their tense silence could very well have to do with the fact that Gummi’s father did not want Kiddi to inherit the farm, but he has stayed on because their mother insisted on it.

They are also big rivals, as their respective flocks share an esteemed bloodline, and at this year’s edition of the annual competition, Kiddi’s ram prevails by half a point over Gummi’s prized tup. Gummi is naturally crestfallen, but after closer inspection, he comes to believe that Kiddi’s ram, and therefore his flock and all other flocks in the area, might be suffering from scrapie, which would be fatal to both the sheep and the entire valley’s livelihood.

It is to be expected that the two brothers, facing the worst crisis in their extensive time on this Earth, will be pushed together to tackle this problem, but their distrust and general dislike of each other certainly makes this a protacted call to collaboration, whence the film’s running but subtle comedy. Despite their differences – Gummi is the serious one, while Kiddi is prone to hit the bottle on frequent occasions and more likely to behave like a fool – they are also dedicated to their sheep, which for these two lifelong bachelors are just like their own flesh and blood. When tragedy strikes their animals, it is like they see their own bloodline vanish in front of their eyes.

Their attachment to the animals also extends into a very warm relationship with Kiddi’s sheepdog, Sómi, which steals every scene in which he appears. Gummi uses him as a carrier pigeon to deliver handwritten messages to his brother whenever the rare occasion arises for them to communicate, and Sómi is almost giddy with anticipation to oblige.

This anthropomorphism is the logical extension of the affection afforded to the ovine creatures, and screenwriter-director Grímur Hákonarson’s decision to imbue his animals with just as much humanity as his two-legged characters adds enormous warmth to the film. And warmth is certainly welcome in this desolate valley that has been hit by disease and remains exposed to the rigours of the island’s thick white winters. The final scenes, set during a blizzard unleashed on the surroundings of Gummi and Kiddi’s farm, is particularly harsh, and at a screening I attended the wailing gusts of wind ont he soundtrack literally caused the ground in the theatre to vibrate. 

As a final point, even though it does not shed much light on our interpretation of the film, it is worth pointing out that the title can equally refer to the two brothers. The men’s interaction and communication at the very end are intimate and more related to instinct than purely rational thought.

Rams is about silence and a secret shared with a combination of naughty subversion of the rules and a determined desire to uphold to the status quo, even when the course of life cannot be turned back, and life itself can barely be resurrected. The two main characters, offbeat as they are, have affection for their animals and even for each other, and their presence in the story brings out both the comedy and the drama of the unexpected situation they are confronted with.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015