Wind River One of the Year's Better Films

Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Weinstein Company, 111 minutes, R (violence, rape, language)
★★★★ 1/2   

Taylor Sheridan, who penned the Oscar-nominated script for Hell or High Water, is no stranger to gritty drama set in wide-open spaces. In Wind River he tries his hand at directing and serves up a first-rate murder mystery set in the namesake mountain range and Indian reservation of central Wyoming. It is an awe-inspiring setting, but of the variety that is equal parts beautiful and terrifying. It takes a self-contained person to live amidst such isolation, bone-jarring winters, and soul-sucking poverty—the kind that knows how to suit up for subzero temperatures and dash across high altitudes in a snowmobile.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a laconic U.S. Fish and Wildlife official whose tracking, hunting, and wilderness skills make him a modern-day mountain man. That handle also fits because he's not nearly as adroit in people skills and has an Indian ex-wife named Wilma (Julia Jones) to prove it. He tries to be a good dad to his young son, Casey, and a good neighbor to everyone, but he's more the kind of guy you admire than love. We suspect he's psychologically scarred, which ironically makes him one of the few Anglos that local Indians and mixed bloods respect.

Wind River is built around Lambert's discovery of the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), the daughter of Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Annie, a Native-American couple whom Lambert has known for years. It's clear from Natalie's gashed forehead and bare feet that she has been murdered, but several technicalities—including the 'official' cause of death and the part of the mountain in which she was found—cloud the investigation. Is this a matter for the tribal police—basically its chief, Ben (Graham Greene) and part-time deputies—or the feds? Not even the FBI knows for sure, which is why they send a single agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), and she's a Floridian by birth. Basically Ben and Banner are left to sort it out and both know they will need Lambert to aid them.

I mention this setup because, at this juncture, Wind River could have become a cookie cutter film. You know the type—people from differing backgrounds cooperate, learn to respect each other's differences, and beautiful relationships blossom. The fact that none of this happens in Wild River is among the things that makes it a really fine film instead of a string of high-altitude, high-toned clichés. Another is that its characters don't—if you will—break character and become snow-suited versions of Mr. Rogers. There's stuff in the back-story that won't reduce to formula: the (often warranted) distrust between locals and outsiders, the crushing despair that can break those who lack purpose or opportunity, deep wounds that might never heal, and the incompatible pulls between tradition and whatever the hell modernity means in a place so remote.

Despite its grisly scenes and forays into violence, this is a gorgeous film to watch. Sheridan uses Wyoming's grandeur to do far more than provide a pretty frame. There is the palpable sense that people such as Cory, Ben, Wilma, Martin, Annie, and others are close with their words because the land reminds them of their ephemerality. In this sense, Renner's performance is tone perfect, and Birmingham and Greene are just a half note behind. Olsen is competent as FBI agent Banner, though l longed for an ineffable something that I imagine a young Jodie Foster would have brought to the role. Truth be told, the bad guys are presented with a heavy hand that plays out too much like a Western, but Sheridan redeems himself with a memorable and satisfying vengeance scene.

Perhaps the biggest rap against the film is that Sheridan doesn't have a very good sense of timing. This film, like last year's Hell or High Water, hasn't gotten the audience it deserves. Weinstein, the film's distributor, initially backed out and then reconsidered. This pushed the film into summer release, a time in which it's hard to gain traction amidst all the mindless blockbuster-at-the-mall hype. Wind River has garnered film festival accolades, but it's in limited theater release and is easy to overlook. Don't make that mistake; this is one of the year's best films.

Rob Weir  


Cotton Mather: August 2017 Album of the Month

Has someone been boiling yew twigs, eye of newt, goat gall, and hemlock roots? Or is it just a coincidence that two books and my favorite album of the month have Salem witchcraft associations? Let’s go with coincidence, but I’m not afraid to admit that I was totally beguiled by an in-progress sampler of The Book of Too Late Changes from an Austin-based band called Cotton Mather. The historical Cotton Mather was the 17th century minister and theologian whose treatise on the admissibility of spectral evidence had tragic consequences. The rock quartet from Texas is much more fun and no one in it actually bears the surname Mather.

The band originally formed in 1990 and made four records, including Kon Tiki in 1997, which won fandom from Noel Gallagher of Oasis. Cotton Mather broke up in 2003 and then reformed in 2012. Guitarist/vocalist Robert Harrison fronts a group that also consists of guitarist/vocalist Whit Williams, bassist Matt Hovis, and drummer Greg Thibeaux. Talk about an ambitious re-launch—Cotton Mather is now halfway through an eventual 64-song collection inspired by the Shang Dynasty’s King Wen (1099-1050 BCE). In brief, Wen sought answers from 64 I Ching readings and tossed coins to divine them. Given that gods don’t appear in the I Ching, Harrison interprets this to mean that human outcomes such as love, loyalty, betrayal, greed, etc. are more random than fated—perfect fodder for rock n’ roll.

If all of that sounds too esoteric, you could just enjoy the music, which is simultaneously evocative and fresh. You can mentally conjure swirling color projections dancing on a sea of oil in “Close to the Sun.” Harrison’s voice and the song’s ambience bear eerie resemblance to John Lennon in his LSD days. There is an acid rock/surf rock mash to “Girl with a Blue Guitar,” and Lennonesque vocals stand cheek by jowl with—and I kid you not—the punk mariachi flavors of “Life of the Liar.” There are other Beatles echoes as well, but from a different era. Both “Candy Lilac” and “Fighting Through” have the thwacky guitars and verve of the Beatles in their youthful innocence, though the dreamy pop groove of the latter is perhaps more Hollies-like. One of the really cool things about Cotton Mather is how the band reminds us of others but welds influences together in unique ways. If Devo went to a carnival and played arcade games with John Lennon, the result might be a song like “Better Than a Hit.” Infuse a heavy metal hair band with a higher collective IQ and its energy, robust power chords, and machine gun drum sprays might come out as “The Book of Too Late Changes.” The music is so much fun that it’s easy to overlook the lyrics linked to the aforementioned musings on the human condition: regret, habits of the mind, change, remembrance…. But that’s okay too. You’ll hear these things eventually as these songs are likely to be on your playlists for quite some time.

Rob Weir     


Let's Not Trash History with Robert E. Lee

Maybe this isn't a good idea
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania souvenir shops do brisk business selling a Confederate flag t-shirt that bears the slogan, "If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson." It's hard to say which is worse, the implicit racism or the woeful ignorance of civics that equates traitorous rebellion with American patriotism. Yet, even as monuments to the Confederacy topple in the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, I am troubled by the potential danger to the historical record. There's not a damn thing redeemable about the Confederate States of America, but what is lost if we obliterate its memory in favor of historical amnesia? Wouldn't it be better to repurpose these monuments rather than trash them?

The study of history must be the servant of evidence, not fashion. Let me remind you that when a statue of Abraham Lincoln appeared along Richmond, Virginia's Riverfront Canal Walk in 2003, it was routinely defaced and unrepentant protestors paraded with placards proclaiming, "Lincoln killed my ancestors." Back then, many of the same voices now demanding we tear down Confederate statues demanded protection for Old Abe. The Lincoln defamers were just as wrong as today's Confederate flag wavers, but liberals can't have it both ways. If we view history entirely through a lens of what is safe or deemed a community standard, Lincoln would have come down. And there's the matter of Richmond's famed Monument Avenue devoted to such Confederate icons as Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. In 1996, one honoring black tennis star Arthur Ashe joined them. Guess how many people wanted to blast that one from its pedestal.

Only naïve (and stupid) people believe that history is one continuous and glorious march from darkness to enlightenment. History unfolds through conflict and we are all better served when we present those tensions rather than replacing one historical monologue with another. Today's monument smashers are too uncomfortably akin to yesterday's book burners for my taste. Luckily, there are intelligent ways around this conundrum.

The first lies with repudiating both conservative and liberal censors. It's unfathomable that anyone today would pretend that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, that bondsmen were simply "workers," or that those who led the Confederacy were the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers. Moreover, it's unsustainable in a nation that in 2020 will become a minority-majority nation in its birthrate. Conservatives can either get on board with an honest reappraisal of American history, or it will be the history books—not Lincoln—that kills their ancestors. But liberals need to do some soul searching of their own. They act with equal stupidity when they wish to remove anything that upsets their delicate sensibilities. Worse, they fuel conservative causes when they ask that Woodrow Wilson's name be removed from all things Princeton because he was a racist, that they not be forced to learn about Andy Jackson because of his deplorable behavior toward Native Americans, or that history should be sanitized to conform to today's politically correct values. A major purpose of history is to show how we got to a point where we find it unsettling that white people routinely owned slaves, degraded women, mistreated workers, and held a host of other unsavory values. We should learn about this, but we cannot hold those from the past to the same values.

National Historical Battlefields offer another way to do history. When I visited Gettysburg as a kid, it was all guns, guts, and glory in what was interpreted as little more than a very bloody family spat: brother against brother. The word "slavery" appeared nowhere. That all changed after 2005, when Congress gave battlefields new marching orders: present all sides of the conflict and all interested parties, or lose funding. There's still much room for improvement, but now multi-perspective discussions hold forth at places such as Gettysburg.

We should do the same with Confederate monuments. Richmond's Monument Avenue could become a laboratory in which visitors are informed that the pro-Confederacy statues arose between the years 1890 and 1913, when Reconstruction had collapsed and Jim Crow reigned supreme. They should leave with at least a rudimentary understanding of what this means—just as they should understand the importance of the civil rights movement in making sure Ashe got to swing his racket in defiance of racism.

Any exceptions? Yes. Confederate flags and monuments should have no presence on public properties that serve the entire public. There are three Confederate monuments on the state capital grounds in Austin, Texas, for instance; these should be relocated to a museum where other aspects of the war are discussed. Can we even imagine placing swastikas on government property? How about signs that say, "Death to white people?" It's indefensible to color the general public in monochromatic racial, cultural, or religious hues. It is, by the way, why we don't have prayer in public schools or crèches on town greens. And it's why we shouldn't have sanitized history books. Like personal therapy, national healing begins in dialogue, not a lecture.