Odd couples blow hot and cold
At the end of Wind River, a contemporary thriller set in the bleak snowy wilderness of Wyoming, a title informs the viewer of the number of Native Americans who go missing, and remain unreported, every year. Who would have thought this sort of scandal persisted to this day? In any event, the theme makes a good subject for the first feature directed by Taylor Sheridan, previously known for his excellent screenplays for two recent thrillers, Sicario and Hell or High Water.
As the film begins, a young Native American woman is fleeing at night, barefoot, across the snow. We soon discover she is 18-year-old Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), when Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife officer, stumbles on her frozen corpse while hunting a mountain lion that’s been killing livestock. A post-mortem reveals the girl was raped and that she died when her lungs burst after inhaling snow. Although she wasn’t murdered in the literal sense, it’s clear she was fleeing from someone who had raped her, and the FBI is called in.
FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) flies in from Las Vegas and is completely unused to the bitterly cold conditions she encounters in Wyoming in winter. She seeks the help of Cory as her guide because he knows the area well. There’s another connection: his daughter, who was a friend of the dead girl, had died three years earlier and her loss was a contributing factor in the break-up of his marriage.
Sheridan creates interesting characters, and both the damaged, driven Cory and the ambitious but inexperienced Jane are strong protagonists as the odd couple at the centre of the investigation. That said, the plotting is less dense in this film than it was in his previous screenplays.
In this remote part of America, where the men who work in the mining industry are bored to tears and far from home, there’s little doubt where the cause of Natalie’s death lies and there’s little in the way of red herrings along the way. It’s all very straightforward but that, in a way, works in its favour. We don’t have to spend too much time wondering how and why Natalie died (though we eventually see this in a painful flashback). Instead we are introduced to a hand- Wind River, Spain, ful of lonely, alienated characters, cops, locals and fly-in mineworkers.
Sheridan suggests it’s so hard to live in a place as isolated as this, especially during the long winter months, that it’s really not surprising people go stir-crazy. This includes the gang of guys who are friends of the dead girl’s brother and who are initially suspected.
The set-up in which an outside investigator is sent to an inhospitable location to solve a murder isn’t new (think of Norwegian film Insomnia, and its American remake of the same name, made by Christopher Nolan in 2002 with Al Pacino as the outsider and Hilary Swank as the local), but Sheridan brings a welcome freshness to the concept. He stages a couple of shootouts superbly without lingering on the outcomes of the violence. Most importantly, you really care about the principal characters. The title, by the way, is the name of the reservation on which the events unfold so dramatically. Speaking of odd couples, let’s welcome the third “trip” film in which odd couple Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon team up once again to take us on a scenic journey that involves visits to a number of gourmet restaurants and some mouth-watering nouveau cuisine. Who would have thought, after seeing the original The Trip (2010), that the series would continue? But here we are again with the formula pretty much unchanged. While driving along the coast of southern Spain, visiting hotels and restaurants that Brydon will review for The New York Times, the pair amuse one another with tall stories, spot-on impersonations of showbiz characters and amiable bickering. They’re like an old married couple, except perhaps they talk more than many old married couples do.
Edited down, like the original film and its sequel, The Trip to Italy (2014), from a six-part TV series made for the BBC and directed, as usual, by Michael Winterbottom, The Trip to Spain more than ever presents obviously fictionalised versions of the characters. How much of it accurately depicts the lives of Coogan and Brydon is probably known only to themselves — they wrote/improvised it, after all. Brydon is married to Sally (Rebecca Johnson) and lives in London with his wife and two kids; Coogan, in the wake of his successful screenplay and leading role in Philomena, flits back and forth between LA and London but, according to this presumably not quite accurate self-portrait, his manager has dropped him and his latest screenplay is to be rewritten by someone younger and more “with it”. He’s also given a 20-year-old son, Jonathan (Kyle Soller), with a pregnant girlfriend and other complications that the film will reveal.
Apart from the scenery (glorious) and the food (mouth-watering), the core of the film, once again, is the banter between these two old friends. There are the usual clever imitations: Michael Caine, Woody Allen, Mick Jagger. It’s all very amusing but also overfamiliar. The imitations were fresher in the previous films, the tall stories and jokes were funnier. It’s good to be sitting in on the crazy conversations of these two insatiable show-offs, but it’s getting just a little bit stale.
And also a bit weird. The conclusion, which I won’t describe, and which involves only Coogan, is seriously strange and rather silly. What it means, if it means anything at all, is a mystery. Maybe that’s the point.