AC­TRESS OLSEN PLAYS FED AGENT IN “WIND RIVER”

El­iz­a­beth Olsen trained hard for the role, but Tay­lor Sheri­dan’s Amer­i­can West is a harsh place

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Wen­zel The Den­ver Post

The un­pre­dictable en­vi­ron­ment of Wy­oming’s Wind River In­dian Reser­va­tion tested El­iz­a­beth Olsen as much as her role as a fed­eral agent in “Wind River.”

A bare­foot woman stum­bles through the snow in northwest Wy­oming, col­laps­ing at last, face-down, in a re­mote stretch of the 2.3 mil­lion-acre Wind River In­dian Reser­va­tion.

The night­time scene, which opens the new film “Wind River” (pre­mier­ing in Den­ver Aug. 11), is as cold and con­text-free as it gets. But we know from the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, Cannes and di­rec­tor Tay­lor Sheri­dan’s other work (2015’s “Si­cario,” and last year’s Os­car-nom­i­nated “Hell or High Wa­ter” — both of which he wrote) that what­ever this is, it’s not go­ing to be pretty.

Beau­ti­ful in a se­vere, chill­ing way, sure. But not pretty.

“It helped to film in that en­vi­ron­ment,” said El­iz­a­beth Olsen, who plays an FBI agent in­ves­ti­gat­ing what turns out to be a sex­ual-as­sault and mur­der case on the Amer­i­can In­dian reser­va­tion. “We’d be in a bl­iz­zard and then all of sud­den it’s a sunny day and it’s just like, ‘What the hell?’ ”

The un­pre­dictable en­vi­ron­ment tested Olsen as much as her role as a fed­eral agent. But through it all she re­mained in­spired by Sheri­dan’s steely, com­pli­cated vi­sion of the Amer­i­can West.

“That’s how he views a lot of the coun­try, be­cause this is how it feels,” she said. “It feels bleak. (Sheri­dan) is just try­ing to de­liver some­thing that he per­ceives is hon­est, that isn’t sug­ar­coated or made more pleas­ant for peo­ple to watch. He wants to cap­ture what he has seen.”

Sheri­dan comes by his view of Wy­oming and other stark en­vi­ron­ments -“Si­cario’s” Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can bor­der towns, or “Hell or High Wa­ter’s” crum­bling West Texas — hon­estly.

Be­fore he was a screen­writer or ac­tor (mostly no­tably as cop David Hale on “Sons of Anar­chy”), 47-year-old Sheri­dan grew up on a ranch an hour west of Waco, which the fam­ily lost in 1993 “as the ca­su­alty of a di­vorce,” as Sheri­dan told The Wash­ing­ton Post in 2016.

A half-dozen years ago, Sheri­dan also re­lo­cated from Los An­ge­les to Wy­oming when he de­cided to write and raise his fam­ily there in­stead of chas­ing fame as an ac­tor. Due to his par­ent’s di­vorce, he had al­ready spent con­sid­er­able time in the state and on some of its Amer­i­can In­dian reser­va­tions. Re­turn­ing as an adult ce­mented a cer­tain cre­ative and per­sonal aes­thetic.

“When I met with him I was to­tally con­fused be­cause his scripts are so po­etic, but he comes across as this mod­ern day cow­boy or Marl­boro Man,” Olsen said. “He’s a very in­tense, in­tim­i­dat­ing char­ac­ter. Kind of di­rect and ag­gres­sive and no bull(crap), but with this highly in­tel­li­gent, emo­tional side. It makes per­fect sense with the ex­pe­ri­ences he’s had and the world he likes to write about.”

In this case, “Wind River” ties up a screen tril­ogy — with “Si­cario” and “Hell or High Wa­ter” — that ex­am­ines the fail­ures of the Amer­i­can fron­tier, as Sheri­dan has called them. Along with Jeremy Ren­ner, who plays game tracker Cory Lam­bert, and a tight sup­port­ing cast, “Wind River” ex­plores “a place where bru­tal acts have be­come ba­nal,” as The New York Times wrote

af­ter a string of shock­ing real-life crimes on the reser­va­tion.

“On av­er­age, res­i­dents can ex­pect to live 49 years, 20 years fewer than in Iraq,” the Times re­ported of the East­ern Shoshone and North­ern Ara­paho pop­u­la­tion in 2012. “Un­em­ploy­ment, es­ti­mated to be higher than 80 per­cent, is on a par with Zim­babwe’s, and is ap­proach­ing the pro­por­tion­ate in­verse of Wy­oming’s 6 per­cent job­less rate.”

These statis­tics are sadly fa­mil­iar to any­one who has paid at­ten­tion to any Amer­i­can In­dian reser­va­tion. What’s new with “Wind River” is the painstak­ing care Sheri­dan takes in ex­plor­ing the causes and con­di­tions of such in­jus­tices, and the ways in which a na­tive pop­u­la­tion that has been forced onto an other­wise sea­sonal tract of land con­tin­ues to be ex­ploited by gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate in­ter­ests — in­clud­ing, in this case, an en­ergy com­pany.

“(Sheri­dan) is also able to see the over­ar­ch­ing themes of the beauty this world has pro­vided us, and what we have in com­mon,” Olsen added — lest all this bleak­ness min­i­mize the film’s artistry.

It’s say­ing some­thing that Olsen is the warm­est pres­ence in “Wind River,” since the 28-yearold isn’t ex­actly known for her cud­dly roles. The sis­ter of for­mer “Full House” ba­bies Ash­ley and Mary Kate, the younger Olsen broke out in 2011 with the ex­cel­lent cult-thriller “Martha Marcy May Mar­lene,” a film that, like “Wind River,” high­lights how eas­ily women are lost in mod­ern Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

De­spite ap­pear­ing in big-bud­get Hol­ly­wood fare such as 2014’s “Godzilla” and a cou­ple of Marvel tent­poles (as The Scar­let Witch), “Wind River” pre­sented a daunt­ing dra­matic chal­lenge for Olsen.

“I wouldn’t say it was writ­ten for me, but when it came down to cast­ing he wasn’t shop­ping it around to dif­fer­ent ac­tresses,” Olsen said. “I’m aware of hav­ing a baby face, and I wasn’t sure if that was go­ing to be help­ful play­ing a fed­eral agent. But the thing I was most con­cerned with was phys­i­cally walk­ing, talk­ing and shoot­ing — pulling off things so peo­ple could imag­ine I was this char­ac­ter.”

Olsen was trained on how fed­eral agents clear houses, talk to sus­pects and, most im­por­tant, han­dle their weapons. She took mar­tial arts and self-de­fense classes and spent three months in gun train­ing with law en­force­ment vet­er­ans and a for­mer Army Green Beret.

But as the main fe­male char­ac­ter in a film where women play sup­port­ing roles (or the vic­tim of a sex­u­ally vi­o­lent crime), “Wind River” de­manded a con­fi­dent author­ity from Olsen that was far out­side her sphere of com­fort.

“At one point I had to scream ‘FBI!’ That’s some­thing you see in movies, but then you ac­tu­ally have to do it and be­lieve it,” she said. “I didn’t even like rais­ing my hand in col­lege. It made me ner­vous and over­heated.”

For­tu­nately, when the time came to shoot that scene — a Mex­i­can stand­off that (no spoil­ers here) pro­vides a tense cli­max to the film — Olsen had been train­ing and film­ing for weeks in un­for­giv­ing en­vi­ron­ments.

“There were days in­side some­one’s home or a morgue, but mostly it was in that high-al­ti­tude snow, so be­cause of that it cre­ated an en­ergy of need­ing to get some­thing done within a cer­tain amount of time,” she said. “We be­came in­cred­i­bly ef­fi­cient at it, deal­ing with bliz­zards and ex­treme weather, and go­ing home at night just felt ex­haust­ing and sat­is­fy­ing.”

A sim­i­lar sat­is­fac­tion cru­elly eludes the char­ac­ters in “Wind River.” But as an el­egy to the mythic Amer­i­can West, the film re­flects its emo­tional en­vi­ron­ment as coolly and art­fully as it does its phys­i­cal one.

Pro­vided by The We­in­stein Com­pany

El­iz­a­beth Olsen and Jeremy Ren­ner co-star in di­rec­tor Tay­lor Sheri­dan’s new Wy­oming-set thriller “Wind River.”

Pho­tos pro­vided by The We­in­stein Com­pany

El­iz­a­beth Olsen, left, stars as FBI agent Jane Ban­ner in di­rec­tor Tay­lor Sheri­dan's new thriller "Wind River."

Jeremy Ren­ner, left, and Gil Birm­ing­ham.

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