The clas­sic west­ern, headed off at the pass

With ‘Wind River,’ first-time di­rec­tor Tay­lor Sheri­dan con­tin­ues to smash stereo­types and rein­vent a sad­dle-weary genre

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY MICHAEL O'SUL­LI­VAN

The clas­sic Amer­i­can west­ern is an en­dan­gered species.

You’re more likely to find a meta-movie that com­ments on the near-ex­tinc­tion of the genre — such as “The Hero,” in which for­mer cow­boy ac­tor Sam El­liott plays a for­mer cow­boy ac­tor — than you are to come across a rootin’-tootin’ ex­am­ple of what is some­times known as the leathers-and-feath­ers genre. How long has it been since the Coen brothers’ re­make of “True Grit”? Seven long years. And 2015’s “The Revenant” feels like some­thing of a fluke.

And yet, since mak­ing his screen­writ­ing de­but with “Si­cario,” ac­tor-turned-film­maker Tay­lor Sheri­dan has al­most sin­gle-hand­edly rein­vented the mori­bund art form, crank­ing out one con­tem­po­rary cow­boy para­ble af­ter another. Set on the fron­tier of the drug war be­tween the United States and Mex­ico, that 2015 film was fol­lowed up by last year’s “Hell or High Wa­ter,” a bank rob­bery shoot-’em-up set against the back­drop of a West Texas land­scape still dev­as­tated from the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Both Os­car-nom­i­nated films ex­plore clas­sic west­ern themes of moral­ity and fron­tier jus­tice: re­ward and pun­ish­ment that some­times fall out­side the let­ter of the law, yet within a strict code of honor.

Both also deal with the idea of con­flict and co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the white man and the Other (whether that means the Na­tive Amer­i­can, in the case of “Hell,” or, in the case of “Si­cario,” the Mex­i­can).

Sheri­dan’s lat­est film — and his im­pres­sive di­rec­to­rial de­but — is “Wind River,” a loosely fact-based thriller about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the mur­der of a Na­tive Amer­i­can teenage girl on Wy­oming’s Wind River reser­va­tion. It re­unites Jeremy Ren­ner, play­ing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice of­fi­cer Cory Lambert, with his co-star from two “Avengers” movies, El­iz­a­beth Olsen, as F.B.I. agent Jane Ban­ner. In many ways, the film in­ter­ro­gates the cliches and car­i­ca­tures of the cow­boys-and-In­di­ans movie, si­mul­ta­ne­ously ac­knowl­edg­ing them even as it knocks them down.

Sheri­dan, in a phone in­ter­view, puts it this way: “I work very hard to line up stereo­types and then smash them with a ham­mer.”

Cory, for ex­am­ple, is in many ways the par­a­digm of the lone, la­conic gun­slinger. Ren­ner, in a sep­a­rate in­ter­view, de­scribes his char­ac­ter as less cow­boy than “cow­boy-es­que” — a man de­fined not by what he says, but by what he does, in the man­ner of John Wayne. Sure, Ren­ner says, he might wear a white, wide-brimmed hat, and he doesn’t say much, but he’s a much more sen­si­tive, new­fan­gled ver­sion of the fa­mil­iar heroic archetype: “emo­tion­ally soft,” in Ren­ner’s words, but by no means weak — not to men­tion haunted by his own tragedy.

Prac­tic­ing what Ren­ner calls a form of cow­boy “med­i­ta­tion,” Cory makes his own bul­lets, hand-load­ing ri­fle car­tridges with gun­pow­der at a work­bench in his home. It’s not merely a demon­stra­tion of his self-re­liance, Ren­ner says, but a form of new-age ther­apy. “We’re not on the Ore­gon Trail any­more,” he says. “We’re on Twit­ter and Jeremy Ren­ner, left, and Gil Birmingham star in “Wind River,” about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the killing of a Na­tive Amer­i­can teenage girl. In­sta­gram.”

Olsen says she sees Jane — a Fort Laud­erdale-based Fed on tem­po­rary as­sign­ment to the South­west — as a take­off on another old trope: the new sher­iff in town. Not only is she a woman in a man’s world, she’s also a Cau­casian who is out of her el­e­ment on the reser­va­tion. “Tay­lor wanted to ex­plore what hap­pens when a white, blond fe­male comes in to solve a crime,” she says. “I don’t know what I’m do­ing, and I need help. I don’t un­der­stand how to nav­i­gate this world.”

To be fair, the world of “Wind River” is an es­pe­cially com­pli­cated one, with Cory work­ing side-by side with the tribal po­lice chief (Gra­ham Greene), while also en­coun­ter­ing fric­tion — and out­right hos­til­ity — when he and Jane show up at a squalid shack be­long­ing to sev­eral drug-ad­dicted Na­tive sus­pects. The movie might not present a flat­ter­ing por­trait of reser­va­tion life, but, as Sheri­dan

points out, who would want that?

“Su­gar­coat­ing doesn’t do any­body any good,” he says of the film’s frank por­trayal of Na­tive Amer­i­can strug­gles. “It’s not vil­i­fy­ing Na­tive Amer­i­cans to show is­sues with sub­stance abuse. Those very is­sues, in dif­fer­ent ways, strike at the very core of all peo­ple un­der emo­tional and fi­nan­cial pres­sure. They ex­ist in ev­ery class and cul­ture.”

In Sheri­dan’s view, that some­times bru­tal hon­esty doesn’t fly in the face of the film’s ap­peal, but, rather, ex­plains its it — es­pe­cially with the Na­tive Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. “Wind River” was, in large part, made pos­si­ble by an in­vest­ment from the Tu­nica-Biloxi Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Corp., a Louisiana-based tribal busi­ness that op­er­ates Na­tive Amer­i­can gam­bling casi­nos, and that was look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­vest in films that raise aware­ness about Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture, warts and all.

“Out of the blue, we got a call from the Tu­nica-Biloxi tribe,” Tay­lor says, re­call­ing the 2015 con­ver­sa­tion he had with a tribal rep­re­sen­ta­tive. “I’d been on the call for 20 min­utes, and they sud­denly said, ‘Wait a minute — you’re not Na­tive Amer­i­can?’ ‘No, bro,’ I said. ‘I’m Ir­ish.’ ”

Sheri­dan at­tributes his ear for what he calls the “ver­nac­u­lar” rhythms of Na­tive Amer­i­can speech, be­hav­ior and life to his West Texas up­bring­ing. Al­though there are few In­di­ans left in his home state — they’ve all been forcibly re­lo­cated to Ok­la­homa — the time Sheri­dan spent vis­it­ing friends on var­i­ous reser­va­tions has con­vinced him that, thanks to years of co­hab­i­ta­tion and cross-pol­li­na­tion — and, yes, con­flict — there are now as many sim­i­lar­i­ties as dif­fer­ences be­tween to­day’s cow­boys and In­di­ans.

In the film, for ex­am­ple, Cory’s ex-wife is Ara­paho, and they have a son to­gether.

But the tale of the evolv­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the white man and the Na­tive Amer­i­can is nowhere bet­ter il­lus­trated, ac­cord­ing to Sheri­dan, than in one of “Wind River’s” fi­nal scenes. In it, Cory and the mur­dered girl’s fa­ther Martin (Gil Birmingham, with face painted), are sit­ting next to each other on the ground, each of the men hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced pro­found loss.

“You’ve got the guy with the cow­boy hat sit­ting next to the guy with his face painted,” Sheri­dan says, “and the scene starts with Cory say­ing, “What’s with the paint?’ Martin tells him: ‘It’s my death face.’ ‘And how do you know what that is?’ asks Cory. Martin is like, ‘I don’t. I just made it up.’ ”

That con­ver­sa­tion, Sheri­dan says, en­cap­su­lates so much that is true and con­tra­dic­tory about the mod­ern west: not just its stub­bornly lin­ger­ing cliches, but the sense that some­thing is, in­evitably, slip­ping away.

“Right there,” Sheri­dan says, metaphor­i­cal ham­mer in hand, “I just wreck it.”

Wind River (R, 107 min­utes). Opens Fri­day at area the­aters.

FRED HAYES/THE WEINSTEIN CO.

FRED HAYES/THE WEINSTEIN CO.

Di­rec­tor Tay­lor Sheri­dan on the set of “Wind River,” his first movie as a di­rec­tor. Sheri­dan pre­vi­ously wrote screen­plays for two other mod­ern takes on the tra­di­tional west­ern.

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