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 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.
Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner co-star in director Taylor Sheridan’s new Wyoming-set thriller “Wind River.”
Elizabeth Olsen, left, stars as FBI agent Jane Banner in director Taylor Sheridan's new thriller "Wind River."
Jeremy Renner, left, and Gil Birmingham.