Hold the Dark

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Macon Blair

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Apparently with his latest film Hold the Dark indie sensation Jeremy Saulnier has lost the audience somewhat. I can see why. In terms both physical and emotional his Alaska-set mystery may be his coldest movie yet. He plunges us into an ice bath, a world where most of us do not belong — a world defined by hostility and populated by unfriendly and grizzled folk who add little comfort to proceedings. Add to that the fact the story doesn’t offer much in the way of “action” or good, clean payoff and you’ve got the recipe for an uncompromisingly strange and bleak experience.

I loved it though. I think. No, I definitely did. In my mind this is the epitome of everything the native Virginian is about when it comes to style and substance. His fourth feature film is also an adaptation of a 2014 novel by William Giraldi, so is it perhaps possible criticisms over narrative convolution and vexing moral turpitude could be applied to the source material too? I haven’t read the book of course, so I couldn’t say. However there is a new reality I need to address: this is the first time Saulnier has gone the way of an adaptation; it’s entirely possible he’s lost something in translation or perhaps the novel itself is one of those “Well, you can’t really adapt it because (such and such excuse).”

Hold the Dark plays host to dueling narratives, one focused upon a writer and veteran wolf tracker named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) who’s summoned by a grieving mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough in a very strange turn), to the remote Alaskan village of Keelut to investigate the disappearance of her child — merely one of several thought to be the victims of hungry wolves. At this point she’ll settle with just having the body returned for to give it a proper burial. When he arrives in town however, things are not entirely what they seem and soon he finds himself in a fight for survival in a place where chaos reigns.

The second through-line adopts the perspective of Medora’s soldier hubby Vernon (a shit-your-britches scary Alexander Skarsgård), who, after being wounded in battle somewhere in the Middle East, returns to his frozen home town and to the grim news concerning his six-year-old son. After being picked up at the airport by his longtime friend and fellow father-in-mourning Cheeon (First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope) he goes to meet with local law enforcement, lead by the stoic and upstanding Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), and the coroner (Brian Martell), and . . . let’s just say the guy’s pretty hard to placate, even at this early stage. But then another development further twists the knife and carnage soon erupts in Keelut, threatening to tear apart the town and its inhabitants, some of whom hold an uncanny relationship with their icy environs, like the enigmatic Illanaq (played by Tantoo Cardinal, indigenous Canadian actress and Member of the Order of Canada).

Hold the Dark is as much a journey through grief and loss as it is a physical flirtation with the supernatural. The later movements in particular butt up against stuff that’s maybe not meant to be understood (what a cop-out line Tom). It’s a deliberately paced drama that becomes increasingly menacing — don’t let that midway-point daylight massacre fool you — and in which motives appear to be driven more by madness than rationale. That’s what really drew me in to the movie, the extremity of both environment and characters who, consistent with the Saulnier aesthetic, are desperate to do what it takes to survive. That element of desperation is elevated to an all-time high here, admittedly. The suffering is real, palpable. It’s certainly a film of extremes.

It’s also a total team effort. Saulnier gets plenty of help from the likes of Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who captures the spirit of the wild in stunning and often savage detail, the editing provided by Julia Bloch will make you feel every bone crunch and every bullet piercing through leathery skin. And I’m not sure where we would be without this smartly chosen, chillingly effective cast (kudos to Avy Kaufman). Jeffrey Wright acquits himself wonderfully in a quiet, almost meditative lead performance — I’ve never viewed the guy as leading man material but clearly I’m mistaken. And I really enjoyed James Badge Dale as a beacon of decency trying to shine in this inhospitable spit of land.

With Hold the Dark Saulnier has created a truly singular experience, a snow-swept, blood-soaked Neo-western that pits the unpredictability of human behavior against the indiscriminate brutality of Mother Nature. Who is the real villain? Is there such a thing out here? Days later and I’m still having that debate with myself and I love that about this movie.

Not quite the Drunk Tank

Recommendation: Hold the Dark is absolutely not a film that will gel with everyone — as I noted at the top of this review. It’s a heavy, maybe even depressing viewing experience that becomes almost about spiritual suffering. It customarily boasts excellent performances from a great cast. Screenwriter and frequent Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair has an ear for natural albeit harsh dialogue, while Saulnier has yet again proven himself an auteur in the making. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “When we’re killed, the past is killed. When kids are killed, that’s different. When kids are killed, the future dies. There’s no life without a future.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Wind River

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Wind River is a haunting little crime thriller that creeps into your soul and nestles there. It’s brought to you by the writer of Sicario and last year’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, which may tell you everything you need to know about this movie, based on true events about a tracker working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services who teams up with a rookie FBI agent to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a young Native American woman.

The journeyman actor-turned-screenwriter trades the scorching temperatures of the southern U.S. for the bitter chill of wintry Wyoming. Tumbleweeds for evergreens; cowboy hats for furry down jackets. The harsh terrain changes but Sheridan, who has proven his worth in a very limited amount of time, fortunately does not. He remains committed to the same gritty, humanistic perspective that has helped identify him as among the most powerful emergent voices in Hollywood.

As we have come to be spoiled by the writer-director, certain things are givens: impeccable acting, complex morality, sympathetic tonality. Wind River operates most apparently as a straightforward police procedural but that’s just the part of the iceberg that’s visible. What the screenplay hides beneath the surface is where the film is at its most affecting, not just as a deeply nuanced exploration of personal grief but as damning evidence of the marginalization of Native Americans.

Wind River tells a story about fictional people; however, as a title card at the end of the film suggests, this could be the story of any one of the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of women who have disappeared from Indian reservations across the country. As of today, it is not known how many Native American women go missing or what even becomes of them, as they remain the only demographic for which the U.S. Department of Justice does not compile that data.

While Kelsey Asbille as the victim — a teenaged resident named Natalie — provides a face to these unknowns, Jeremy Renner proves once again to be a major comfort. He injects warmth into an environment characterized by precisely the opposite. His Cory Lambert has earned the trust and respect of many of the residents of Wind River, a plot of land in central-western Wyoming home to members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Cory’s dedicated years to protecting them and their livestock from the predatory animals that roam this yawning expanse of pillowy hills and knife-edge ridges. Of course, he has done this at the expense of his own family, a familiar but still effective flaw of character that grafts perfectly with the film’s thematic explorations.

Cory’s commitment to the community deepens when FBI Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up on the scene, determined to take control of what appears to her to be a sexual assault case. Her woeful unpreparedness for the conditions, though initially played off as broadly humorous, ultimately proves to be the first of many obstacles that will truly test her resolve. Gender dynamics come into play as Banner has something to prove as an outsider in this world. Olsen plays her hand perfectly, her sizable ego soon humbled by taking bullets in subzero temperatures and by listening to the stories of the people who call this frozen hell home.

Renner is reliable and Olsen makes for interesting company, but you cannot overlook Gil Birmingham, who re-teams with Sheridan after playing the butt of every Jeff Bridges joke in Hell or High Water. That’s in stark contrast to his brief but dramatically hefty role here, in which he portrays the victim’s father as a man consumed by grief. An early scene in which Banner is cringingly unaware of her aggressive style confesses to the delicate nature of her assignment. It’s a traumatic moment, with Birmingham’s not-so-quiet sobbing memorably given privacy by remaining just out of shot.

The locals call Wind River the “land of you’re on your own.” That’s a harsh lesson for Banner to have to take back with her to Las Vegas, but for everyone else it’s just a fact of life. As a boy who grew up on a ranch before his family lost it to the economic downturn of the 1990s, Sheridan has a pretty firm grasp on man’s relationship with mother nature and how tenuous a relationship it is. That manifests powerfully here as well, but Wind River evolves into something much more personal and even profound than a tale of survival. That old Darwinian theory is a byproduct of the story, but it’s not the story.

Wind River is about being found, being recognized. Being heard. And the heavy sigh in which the film ends echoes back decades of silence. The kind of silence that kills, by madness or by wolf, by pulmonary edema or just plain-old ignorance.

Recommendation: Taylor Sheridan rewards viewers once again with an absorbing, emotionally stirring and deeply disturbing crime drama based on real events. Both a tribute to the untold number of victims as well as a culture that has had indignity upon indignity heaped upon it since the appearance of Anglo-American settlers, Wind River feels especially timely if you take into consideration recent headlines, such as those involving the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their continued battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself. I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just . . it hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away. That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor comes up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, ‘I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. Your daughter’s gone. Now the good news: as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, you’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?’ He said, ‘that’s what not accepting this will rob from you.’ If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain. Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Lone Ranger

tlr1

Release: Wednesday, July 3, 2013

[Theater]

Don’t be fooled by the label. Although titled The Lone Ranger, this movie is far more interesting because of Tonto than it is because of what Armie Hammer tries to contribute to his John Reid/Lone Ranger. While even the white horse is more memorable than Hammer’s character (and a better actor, too), this is most definitely the Johnny Depp show again. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing had it not been the biggest compliment one might be able to pay this loud, messy project from those who brought you Pirates of the Caribbean.

It’s release is perfectly patriotic, as it comes storming into theaters right before the Fourth of July. There’s a nice rendition of The Star Spangled Banner hidden somewhere in the story. The Lone Ranger and his whacked-out sidekick are all about maintaining freedoms and seeking justice — all of this perhaps hinting to Disney’s inability to judge the quality of the product before judging the quality of its timely release. Somewhere out there in the wild and dusty desert of movie reviews I read that this film “is a rough cut of a slimmed down, better version.” I thought this description nailed it, since what we get isn’t really a bad film as much as it has just far too much going on. There’s too many detours throughout that loosen the wheels on this old locomotive and threaten to derail the entire thing before it’s two-and-a-half-hour run time is up.

The Lone Ranger begins with a boom. A train full of passengers suddenly becomes a weapon as the dreaded Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) manages to escape capture from the empty car he’s being held in and attracts a group of criminals to help him get away. Meanwhile, the tracks that the train is currently riding are still being constructed a couple of miles down the way, and with the conductor now incapacitated, wannabe-sheriff John Reid is unable to stop the train from careening off the end. During this first clash, Reid has been inadvertently handcuffed to a Native American spirit warrior who insists he is innocent to everything that has just happened. Reid insists he be arrested anyway. These opening twenty-ish minutes are exciting and foreshadow a healthy amount of action still to come — even if these action sequences come after extended periods of sleep-inducing exposition and unwanted narrative drift.

Verbinski then saddles us up with the local law enforcement as they ride horseback into some potentially dangerous territory where they hope to find and reprehend the deadly outlaw Cavendish. Having not seen a Westerner in awhile, even I don’t think it’s fair exactly to expect a Tombstone-quality picture from Disney; nor should we have hopes that John Wayne might pop out from behind a rock and completely steal the show. I guess we have Depp doing a lot of that, but this is more in the style of those fun-havin’ pirates in the Caribbean. . .only now we are on land seeking justice instead of buried treasure and all that. The following scenes are important as well and help explain the nature of the relationship between Tonto and John Reid, and what lights a fire under his ass, compelling him to seek vengeance on Cavendish himself — and of course, what is compelling him to don the famous black mask. These scenes are also rich in spoiler material so I’ll avoid detailing them.

Up to this point, we still have a rather interesting movie on our hands. But around the corner, in terms of developing anything worth remembering, all we get are tumbleweeds and dust bowls. Oh, and evil little bunnies.

It’s when we (eventually) start getting into the character development/trust-building phase that the movie starts crumbling. Hammer’s awkward, campy lines and terrible reaction shots are slight causes for alarm. I really wanted to start calling him Armie Hammy since most of what he’s been given in this film are lines that would fit more into children’s books than in an action movie that has more violence within the story than most young Disney fans might be accustomed to seeing. The cheese-factor is through the roof with him, but at least it’s not with Tonto. Instead, all Depp wants to do is call his newfound partner ‘Kemosabe’ and feed grains to his dead bird, which functions also as a headpiece. (Apparently, this is some kind of comfort to the deeply disturbed Indian.) Even with all of the little crowd-pleasing Depp-isms on display, his character feels awfully limited.

Of course, we get kicked off onto several side stories, and this pattern really contributes to The Lone Ranger‘s profusely long run time. One such story fills us in on Tonto’s background and how he has come to liking having dead bird on head. But we no want so much as we want much good big story. Justice is what I seek, Kemosabe.

Even despite the leads being not as strong as they need to be for a film that will center around them, we get satisfactory evil with Butch Cavendish. That dirty grin worn on his screwed-up-looking mouth is just sinister enough to overlook the fact that he is stupid as all hell. (How many times can you afford to let the duo escape death, when you have them right at gun point? The whole business of getting your word in before pulling the trigger is a trick that should be retired in movies, although I know it never will.)

Helena Bonham Carter is in this movie, though she doesn’t have much to play with other than one peculiar physical deformity. Tom Wilkinson is flat and lifeless as the businessman overseeing the development of the Transcontinental Railroad project. I typically enjoy the man’s presence; here, he is a complete waste. Whatever remains of the main cast that I haven’t mentioned are not really worthy of mention and fade into the background with ease.

To the film’s credit, the ending is rather stylish, and is perhaps the only moment in the entire thing that really evoked classic Lone Ranger appeal. It may too be a case of an extended sequence of action and adrenaline, but at least it’s quite a good bit of fun. As well, the scenery is beautiful and I really enjoyed the various physical places we go to, rather than the unnecessary lengths to which the director goes to try and flesh out his story. There’s some gorgeous panoramas of the giant mesas, some unique looks at famous arches, as well as some really great camerawork around the moving trains. In a nutshell, if Verbinski could have whittled this down to under two hours the story surely would have been more compelling and a bit more dramatic. Or at least, it would have had more of an appearance of being that way. With it meandering around from point to point, it seems the director is intent on pointing out everything that makes The Lone Ranger what it is, without much of a thought to creatively fuse it all together. A good draft of a film, but this should not be the final product.

tlr2

2-5Recommendation: Diehard Pirates of the Caribbean fans probably will take to this quite well. I am not a diehard fan, but I did find some similarities in the tone and style of The Lone Ranger. However, for whatever elements the two seem to have in common, Pirates of the Caribbean was the superior film. Depp is pretty decent as Tonto, but seems a little worn out and tired. Maybe that was just the incredibly lame script.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 149 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com