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Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen set aside their superpowers to hunt down a savage killer in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, the third part of the writer/director’s ‘thematic trilogy’, after Sicario and Hell Or High Water. Total Film investigates…
By JAMIE GRAHAM
There are two reasons to be intrigued and excited by Taylor Sheridan’s brutal crime-thriller Wind River. One is that it closes the screenwriter’s loose trilogy that explores the demons of modern-day America, coming hot on the heels of Sicario (drugs) and Hell Or High Water (economic collapse), two of the finest US pictures of recent years. The other is that it re-teams Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, aka Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch, in rather less fantastical circumstances. Here they don’t fight a sentient AI that wants to eradicate all of humanity, but investigate the rape and murder of an 18-year-old Native American woman from the titular reservation in wintry Wyoming. Not that Sheridan knew of the hook that his casting provides…
“I’ve never seen The Avengers,” he shrugs, taking a bay-window seat on the Croisette in Cannes, where his film is playing in the Un Certain Regard category having already wowed Sundance. A sometime actor who’s best known for his role as Deputy David Hale in Sons Of Anarchy, he’s a commanding, jockhandsome guy, his iridescent green eyes a match for the azure sea. “People kept saying: ‘They worked together before,’ and I was like: ‘Really?’ I asked Jeremy and he said: ‘Oh, we did this movie together. I play this guy who uses a bow and arrow.’ So I thought it was some dark, medieval thing that no one saw. Then I was at home one day and my son pointed at the TV and was like: ‘It’s Jeremy!’ I thought: ‘Wow, he’s an Avenger.’ Then Lizzie came in and did some weird thing with her hands. I thought: ‘Wow, they’re in the same movie. Wow, they’re in my movie. Wow, I’m going to get asked about that.’”
As, of course, are the two stars themselves. Renner slumps down complaining of jetlag, but refuses coffee lest it mess with the nap he’s planning to take after talking to Total Film. “It was one of the reasons to go do it. There’s already a comfortability level,” he says. “I find, at this point in my life, I want to work with people who inspire me. Lizzie is an amazing human being. It was great to be able to work with her in a different way. When you’re in the mountains and the snow, it’s nice to have a familiar face.”
Olsen’s response indicates that the respect and the affection are mutual, though her answer goes beyond the usual actor-on-actor platitudes. “I love working with Jeremy,” she begins, before pausing as a sound system kicks in outside the window. “That’s not annoying, right?” she laughs, then raises her voice to continue: “You see who he is in the movie. I mean, he’s a deeply soulful person, and he’s a really great problem solver. When you’re on set with him, whether it’s The Avengers or this, he’s so great at helping the larger picture. The way he speaks about character and script and story and structure and beats and moments… it’s an education. He’s a really generous collaborator.”
What does she mean by: “You see who he is?” She smiles wryly. “He’s not going to do the same thing that Benedict Cumberbatch is going to do, right? He’s not putting on a show. He’s such a grounded person and a presence on screen. It’svery hard to find a false moment. It’s easy to get to know Jeremy the man through watching his films.”
THE REAL DEAL
Renner plays Cory Lambert, a taciturn US Fish and Wildlife Service agent who is allowed on the Wind River reservation to kill any predators that prey on the local farm animals. Hunting a family of mountain lions across the blizzardblitzed slopes, he happens upon the shoeless frozen corpse of Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), and an autopsy reveals that her death was caused by her lungs bursting from inhaling sub-zero air as, presumably, she fled her attacker(s).
Las Vegas FBI Agent Jane Banner (Olsen) is called in. Capable and forthright, she’s smart enough to not let pride hamper her investigation, and quickly elicits the aid of Lambert so she might get to grips with the isolated community, inclement weather and harsh terrain. The inquiry uncovers some harrowing secrets, and along the way Sheridan brings his forensic eye to a forlorn, desperate population crippled by loss.
“It mirrors my experience with the world, OK?” starts Sheridan, who stresses that Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie did crackerjack jobs of directing Sicario and Hell Or High Water but he had to direct this one as it’s so personal to him. Taking the reins was, he claims, only a small step up given he visualises every script, and includes detailed stage directions to communicate tone at all times. “When I was in my twenties, a very good friend of mine was Native American. He lived on a reservation and he introduced me to that world. I was taken with the culture and made a lot of friends there, and was so upset with the way they were treated in America. We went to this land that wasn’t ours, we made a lot of promises to the people to allow us to coexist, we broke all of those promises, and then we killed their food source and then we killed them. And those that survived we forced onto land that we thought wasn’t valuable. Then we realised: ‘Oh shit, that land is valuable. It has uranium on it or we can run a pipeline under it.’ So we’re still exploiting and extracting from what little we’ve given them. And that’s a shameful – shameful – governmental practice that’s ignored by our press and is not in the public consciousness.”
Normally calm, collected and pretty damn cool, Sheridan is visibly enraged. It’s wise to let him vent… “America’s presently going through a necessary catharsis and is dealing with issues of race and gender equality and sexual identity, but what nobody’s mentioning, not once, are the Native Americans. They’ve been, essentially, on really big prisoner of war camps for the last 130 years, and we don’t talk about it. It’s offensive to me. The Supreme Court has already ruled, twice, that they’re justified in receiving all their land back, but it’s wildly inconvenient for us to give it to them so we gave them money, but we didn’t really give them money, we gave them casinos – well, what a great gift. It’s fucking offensive. Pardon my French.”
He’s not the only one to whom Wind River is intensely personal. Renner is similarly angered by the treatment of Native Americans, but says: “My energy was not put into understanding so much what it’s like to live on a reservation, because I’ll never understand that.” He instead focused on exploring loss, for the case is made painfully resonant to Cory by the fact that the dead woman was a good friend of his own daughter, who herself died three years before. Renner mentions a rape in his own family and losing a six-month-old cousin to a cot death. “Cory’s plight and my situation are all pretty mixed in,” he says. “I got to act out a version of who I am. I initially set out in my mind for Cory to be a piece of granite. But I fell apart in most scenes. It was like: ‘Holy fuck, this guy’s not as tough as I thought he was.’ He’s hyper-sensitive. I had to constantly restrain emotion. These are tough things to deal with,” he concludes, blowing out a breath.
Olsen, too, saw parallels between Jane, who refuses to be bowed by this most patriarchal of environments, and her own resilience. Earlier Sheridan told Total Film that she is one of the strongest, most independent people he’s ever met, pointing out how she’s forged her own identity from the shadow of her two older sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley – child stars both who morphed into fashionista titans.
“I didn’t see that parallel,” she says, “but all of my friends and the people I’ve surrounded myself with will say I’m a pretty direct communicator and sometimes it’s [small, mock-mortified voice] not the greatest thing. Sometimes you have to understand how people want to be communicated with. In that way I’m like Jane – she’s not really reading the situation in an emotional way because that’s not her job, to feel sorry for someone. Her job is to go in and figure out what the problem is and fix it.”
When it comes to knowing your job, kudos must go to Sheridan, who matches his directorial style to his milieu and story. This is a land of “snow and silence”, where the only options are to “survive or surrender”. And so the tale unfurls as a hard-bitten-noir/revenge-western that recalls the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men, Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan and Larry Fessenden’s criminally underseen wintry folk-horror Wendigo. There is an élan to the visual storytelling, but it’s purposeful and muscular. The violence, when it inevitably arrives, impacts with the force of an avalanche.
“The terrain forced me to create a visual palette,” Sheridan starts. “I’d love to shoot things on sticks and dollies but you can’t lay track on snow. So I sat down with my DP Ben Richardson, who’s a wizard, and said: ‘How are we going to make this feel authentic without feeling sloppy,’ which is what handheld can do. So we decided to shoot it in this voyeuristic manner. Not from the perspective of a person, but from the perspective of an animal. We would shoot really low, or high from a tree. We would try to find ways where it felt like the animals in the forest were watching the people.” And the explosive violence? “I worked with some guys at the LAPD and went through hours of their footage of gun battles, and the longest one I could find lasted 25 seconds. It’s chaotic and it’s sloppy. I wanted it to feel real. I don’t want to ever glorify violence. I’ve always said: ‘When a bullet is fired in one of my movies it has a home, and I want you to see that home.’” He pauses, lining up his words. “As for the rape… There’s a general misconception that this is an act of sex. It’s an act of violence. I had to shoot that in a way that felt violent and in no way sexual. There’s no nudity in the scene. I focus on the horror of her reaction and the complete lack of empathy of the man who’s on top of her.”
No glorification, no flinching, no false notes. This extended to the training of the actors (“I did a lot of physical training – I wanted to feel confident holding a gun, and you change the physicality of a character based on skill and confidence,” explains Olsen), and even the score. Sheridan hired Nick Cave, who knows all about grief having been just 19 when he lost his father to a car crash, and ordered him to avoid any and all clichés pertaining to Native American music. “No percussion” and “You can’t use a fucking flute” were the instructions, along with: “I want you to make a score for a horror movie that takes place on another planet.”
But here’s the thing: in a film so obsessed with authenticity and so intent on measuring people by rigorous moral standards, isn’t it a little off to do a Mississippi Burning and have two white Hollywood stars as your leads? Sheridan doesn’t miss a beat.
“It’s a great point and I have two answers for that,” he begins. “First, there’s the harsh reality of moviemaking. The only way to make an independent film is to secure your budget with the foreign sales, and the only way to secure your budget with the foreign sales is to have a recognisable commodity. So I have to find someone who is attractive to the marketplace, but services all the needs I have as an artist. That’s an extreme challenge. There are a lot of actors who can guarantee my financing, but there are not many who can bring the gravitas and understatement and compassion that Jeremy brings to it.”
No breath, point two: “I’ve heard people say: ‘If Taylor was to write this from a Native American view, it would be a stronger film.’ How can I tell you it from a point of view I don’t have – how arrogant is that? But I can tell it from the standpoint of a man who’s been in love with a woman who’s Native American, who has friends who are part of the reservation experience. I can tell that story truthfully.” Finally he breathes. “I’m really proud of the Native American actors I was able to find and utilise, and I hope – especially with Gil Birmingham, who plays Martin in this, and played Alberto in Hell Or High Water – I hope I made a star. And I think Martin Sensmeier, who played Chip in the film, is gonna be a star.”
Hopefully he’s right. What is certain is that Sheridan, as a director, has a major career ahead of him to complement his already etched-in-stone rep as one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters. Who knows, he might one day direct an Avengers movie…
WIND RIVER OPENS ON 8 SEPTEMBER.
Source: Total Film Magazine (Digital Edition)