WIND RIVER (2017) – Taylor Sheridan’s First-Rate Thriller Satisfies on Every Level

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Taylor Sheridan is one of my favorite screenwriters working today.  He wrote SICARIO, my favorite film of 2015, and he followed that up with HELL OR HIGH WATER, one of the best films of 2016.

Now comes WIND RIVER (2017), which is every bit as good as his previous two films, and this time Sheridan directs as well.

WIND RIVER (2017) takes place in Wind River, Wyoming, a beautiful expanse of land that looks like a winter paradise with its snow-covered mountains and icy rivers. But looks can be deceiving.

Hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the dead body of a young woman in the snow, miles from anyone’s home or farm. Cory recognizes the young woman as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), who used to be best friends with his own daughter, herself deceased.

FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives on the scene and quickly determines that the girl’s death is a homicide.  As she begins her investigation, she asks Cory for help,  not only with transporting her through the snowy terrain via his snowmobile, but also with tracking down the girl’s killer, a request he agrees to without hesitation.

They then spend the rest of the movie trying to find out who killed Natalie and why.

WIND RIVER is much more than just a straightforward thriller.  For starters, it takes place on a Native American reservation.  As he did with the plight of economy starved Texans in HELL OR HIGH WATER, writer Taylor Sheridan takes us inside the minds and hearts of the Native Americans on the reservation.  They are a depressed lot, feeling they have little to live for, surrounded by snow and silence.

But as Cory tells Natalie’s brother Chip (Martin Sensmeier), whose life has been pretty much one problem after another, he’s had opportunities, from jobs to the military, and instead he chose his current situation:  he chose drugs over these other things.  Cory tries to tell Chip that it’s never too late to turn things around, especially in light of what happened to his sister.

Cory is good friends with Natalie’s and Chip’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham), and they unfortunately share a bond, in that both their daughters have died.  Martin makes it clear that he wants Cory to track down and kill whoever murdered his daughter. The two actors Renner and Birmingham share some of the better scenes in the movie.

Cory himself is haunted by his own daughter’s death.  She, too, was murdered, her body also found in the wilderness.  Cory tells Jane that if she ever has kids, she can never blink.  Never.  Because no matter how carefully you plan, it’s not enough. It’s a solemn warning, one that resonates with parents.

The film also points out that statistics are not kept on the disappearances of Native American women, and no one really knows how many Native American women have gone missing over the years.

Jeremy Renner is excellent as Cory Lambert.  He has some truly emotional scenes, both when talking about the loss of his own daughter, and also when he reaches out to his friend Martin over the loss of Martin’s daughter. Renner is also very believable as a hunter and a tracker. It’s a rock solid performance.

Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen is just as good as FBI agent Jane Banner. She’s sent to Wind River alone, as she just happened to be the closest FBI agent in the area when the call came in about the discovery of the body, and she quickly realizes she’s in over her head, but she retains her professionalism and does the best job she can do, which is actually pretty darn good, considering the circumstances.  I like Olsen a lot, and this is one of her better roles.

While she and Renner have both starred in the Marvel superhero films, Renner as Hawkeye and Olsen as Scarlett Witch, they both do much better work here and share strong onscreen chemistry together, which says something for characters who aren’t involved in a sexual or romantic relationship.  I also enjoyed Olsen’s performance here better than her roles in GODZILLA (2014), OLD BOY (2013), and the horror film SILENT HOUSE (2011).  She was good in all these films, but she’s better here.

Veteran actor Graham Greene is on hand as police chief Ben, and like Renner and Olsen, he’s solid throughout.  In fact, he may have been my favorite character in this one, and he certainly gets most of the better lines in the movie. At one point Jane asks him if they should call for back-up, and he tells her “this isn’t the land of back-up, but the land of you’re on your own.”  Ben’s a likable character, and he patiently is there every step of the way during the investigation. with Cory and Jane.

Gil Birmingham, who was excellent in a supporting role in HELL OR HIGH WATER, where he played Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger partner, is superb once again here in another supporting role as Natalie’s grieving father Martin.  The scene where Cory talks to Martin about how to deal with the loss of his daughter is one of the best scenes in the movie.

And Kelsey Asbille does a fine job in a key flashback as Natalie. Likewise, Martin Sensmeier is very good as Natalie’s troubled brother Chip.

The acting is superb all around.  Jon Bernthal also shows up for a key sequence, and he doesn’t disappoint.

With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan demonstrates once again the he is a superior screenwriter.  He writes more than just straightforward thrillers. There are layers to his stories and themes that serve not only to educate but also to substantiate the characters’ actions and motivations.

In WIND RIVER, Cory is only too happy to assist Jane because of the unfinished business over the murder of his own daughter.  He’s still haunted by the fact that he wasn’t able to protect his daughter nor was he able to find out who killed her.  These layers establish emotions, and these emotions drive the story forward and give it much more impact.

Sheridan also writes phenomenal dialogue, period.  His characters come to life, and they’re believable, as are the situations they find themselves in.  There’s a great scene where Jane and Ben are at the coroner’s office, and the coroner informs them that he can’t list murder as the cause of death for Natalie because she died from the cold temperatures.  At first, Jane thinks the coroner is stonewalling her, but he tells her point-blank that it’s clear she’s been raped and murdered, but officially he can’t list her death as a homicide if that’s not how she died, to which Jane responds that unless he lists it as a homicide, her superiors are going to tell her to go home.  And then Ben basically pulls her aside and tells her that the coroner is a good man who’s just doing his job, and she should cut him some slack. It’s a refreshingly honest scene.

Sheridan also directed WIND RIVER, and he proves to be every bit as talented behind the camera as he is writing screenplays.  The photography is beautiful and captures the grandeur of the snowy mountains of Wyoming.  And WIND RIVER is a chilling thriller as well.

There is a sequence near the end that is every bit as suspenseful and nerve-racking as some of the nail-biting sequences in SICARIO.   WIND RIVER does not disappoint on any level.

And while this isn’t Sheridan’s directorial debut— he directed the horror movie VILE (2011)— it’s still an impressive piece of work, combined with the fact that he wrote the screenplay.  Sheridan is also an actor, and in fact the first time I saw Sheridan was on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY where he played Deputy Hale.

WIND RIVER is Taylor Sheridan’s third straight superior screenplay, and it’s a thriller you certainly do not want to miss.

I can’t wait to see what he writes next.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BABY DRIVER (2017) – A Stylish Ride to Nowhere

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The word is out.  Critics and fans alike love BABY DRIVER (2017), the new action movie by writer/director Edgar Wright.

I did not.

And now I have the arduous task of telling you why.

First of all, I should have loved this one, and I went into the theater fully expecting to like it.  After all, it’s got a fantastic cast.  While youngster Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead role as Baby, the best getaway driver on the planet, I’m talking about the supporting cast, which includes Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal.

It’s got an out-of-this-world soundtrack, and it’s full of stylish high-speed chase scenes meticulously crafted by director Wright.  What’s not to love?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, here’s what BABY DRIVER is about.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man who works as a getaway driver for the mysterious Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Baby owes Doc a debt, and so he continually works these jobs to pay off that debt, and he’s in high demand because he’s the best at what he does. His secret is his music, which he is locked into when he drives. Baby had been in a car accident as a kid, which left him with permanent ringing in his ears. Hence, the nonstop music playing through his ear buds, which not only helps him to concentrate, but blocks out all distractions when he drives.

And drive he does.  Doc is constantly organizing heists, and he never uses the same team twice, but he does continually use Baby.  So, depending on the team, Baby drives for the likes of Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his lover/partner in crime Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the unhinged and very dangerous Bats (Jamie Foxx).

But along the way Baby meets the girl of his dreams, Debora (Lily James), a young waitress at the diner he frequents, who shares his passion for music and life.  They fall in love, and suddenly all Baby can think about is working that one last job for Doc, and then getting out completely to live his life with Debora.

If only things were that simple.

BABY DRIVER is the type of movie where the sum of its parts simply doesn’t equal a whole, and I say this, because there were a lot of parts to this movie I liked.  But for everything I liked, there were also issues.

Let’s start with the soundtrack.  Yup, it’s fun and absolutely electrifying, the most satisfying soundtrack since the Awesome Mix from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014). And it plays throughout BABY DRIVER pretty much nonstop.  So much so that it actually drowned out the dialogue at times.  No, I don’t mean it was too loud so that you couldn’t hear the dialogue, but that it was so prevalent it often took the place of the dialogue.  At times, I felt I was watching a feature-length music video, which is not what I’m looking for in a movie.  I wanted more story.  I wanted more characterization.  I got a lot of music.

Then there’s the awesome cast.

As I said, Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead as Baby.   Although there’s not a whole lot for him to do other than exude charm and perform some nifty dance moves.  But he does it all well here. I liked Baby, and of all the characters in the movie, he was the one who was defined the best, and so overall nothing much to complain about here.  Elgort has starred in the DIVERGENT series, and I liked him as Tommy, the young man who becomes Carrie’s prom date in the remake of CARRIE (2013).

Lily James is cute and cuddly as Debora, Baby’s girl, who looks like she walked off the set of a 1950s James Dean movie.

Of the heavy hitters in the supporting cast, Jon Hamm probably fares the best as Buddy. Hamm has that ability to play characters with a dark past and be quite believable at it. He did it with the character Don Draper on the television series MAD MEN (2007-2015), and he does it again here.  He brings an icy coldness to his performance that lets you know that Buddy is not someone you want to cross.

Eiza Gonzalez is beautiful and sexy as Buddy’s partner and lover Darling, but at the end of the day, I wanted to know more about her.

Similarly, while Kevin Spacey is very good as Doc, the man who puts all these operations together, the character is begging for more back story.   Who exactly is this guy?  What are his motives?  Why is he such a father figure to Baby?  Sadly, none of these questions are answered.

Jamie Foxx’s role as Bats, while explosive, and while giving Foxx plenty of opportunities to chew up the scenery, is probably the most traditional of the supporting roles here. Simply put, he’s a hot head whose answer to any problem is killing.

I like Jon Bernthal a lot, and so I was majorly disappointed when his screen time in this one was practically nil.

A much more notable performance belongs to CJ Jones, who plays Baby’s deaf wheelchair bound stepfather, Joseph.  The two care a lot for each other, and Jones and Elgort share some of the more poignant scenes in the movie together.

It was also fun to see Paul Williams on the big screen again in a small bit (no pun intended) as a weapons dealer.

But for most of these characters, with the exception of Baby, I just wanted to know more about them, and the fault here is with the screenplay by Edgar Wright.  This isn’t the first time I’ve had an issue with a Wright screenplay.  While I’ve enjoyed most of his movies, including SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), I was not a fan of THE WORLD’S END (2013), as I wasn’t particularly fond of the script in that one.

Ditto here.

As I said, the majority of the characters here are begging for better development.  Also, the main love story between Baby and Debora was a major letdown.  They fall in love pretty quick, but for most of the movie, their relationship is pushed into the background. Debora doesn’t become endangered by Baby’s criminal contacts and dealings until the end, and by that point, it was too late for me.  I expected their relationship to be in danger throughout, but that’s not the case.

And as flashy and as stylish as car chase sequences are here, directed with near perfect precision by Edgar Wright, I wasn’t won over by those either.  There was something lacking.  I never really got the feel of being in the car with these people.

That was something I definitely felt in the similarly themed and plotted movie DRIVE (2011) by director Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling.  I enjoyed DRIVE more than BABY DRIVER.  DRIVE had a stronger plot, I felt that the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan were in constant danger from the very deadly villain play by Albert Brooks, and the car chase scenes really worked for me.  I really felt as if I were in the cars with the characters at ground level.  I didn’t feel that way here about the car chase scenes in BABY DRIVER.

Also, BABY DRIVER is rated R, but for me, it felt like it was rated PG-13.  I never felt the sense of dread I expected when dealing with the types of characters Baby found himself dealing with.

I just didn’t find BABY DRIVER that rough of a movie.  Instead, it’s light and airy, like a chase scene in a TV commercial rather than in an R-rated action movie.  And that’s because at the end of the day, BABY DRIVER is all style, and no substance.

People are raving about BABY DRIVER.

But for the reasons outlined above, I’m not one of them.

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THE ACCOUNTANT (2016) – Exciting, Entertaining Flick

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It’s Batman vs. the Punisher!

Well, not really, but THE ACCOUNTANT (2016),  the new thriller starring Ben Affleck as a math savant who uncooks the books for some of the most dangerous criminals and terrorists in the world, does pit Affleck—Batman in BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)— against Jon Bernthal, who plays The Punisher on Marvel’s DAREDEVIL TV show.

In THE ACCOUNTANT, Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an accountant with a penchant for working with menacing clients.  As such, he has attracted the attention of Treasury Department head Ray King (J. K. Simmons) who handpicks agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to track down and learn the identity of this mysterious accountant.  With the feds on his tail, Wolff decides to lay low and  work next for a legitimate client.

Wolff is hired by a robotics company run by the philanthropic Lamar Black (John Lithgow) where their young accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) has discovered a discrepancy on their books.  It doesn’t take Wolff long to uncover the root of the problem, and when he does, he finds out that this “legitimate” job is just as dangerous as the shadier ones.

And not only are the feds on Wolff’s trail, but there’s also a mysterious enforcer (Jon Bernthal) closing in on him.

I liked THE ACCOUNTANT a lot, and it’s one of those movies where the less said about the plot, the better.  Not that it’s full of surprises, but it does tell an intricate story with enough twists and turns to keep its audience off balance yet satisfied.

There are a lot of things about this one I liked.  I particularly enjoyed its take on autism.  Wolff has autism, and it’s not shown here to be a disability but simply a different ability, which is consistent with contemporary thinking on this condition.

Now, young Wolff learns his fighting skills at a young age from his hard-driving military father (Robert C. Treveiler) who refused to put his son in a special school and instead taught and trained him by himself, with the mindset that he had to make his son face his fears and toughen him up.  I found these flashback scenes particularly frustrating because the father’s ideas for helping his son are questionable at best, but these scenes work because they explain how Wolff became such an effective killer.

That’s right.  There’s a reason why he has survived all these years working for dangerous clients.  Wolff is rather dangerous himself.  He’s quite the assassin and could give Jason Bourne a run for his money.  Actually, there was something about the early training scenes here that reminded me of Marvel’s DAREDEVIL.  In DAREDEVIL, Matt Murdoch learns how to be a superhero in spite of his being blind.  Here, Wolff becomes super hero-like in spite of his autism.

Again, I really liked the way the film approached autism, not viewing it as a disability but as something that simply makes people who have it different, but no less complete than those of us without it.

THE ACCOUNTANT also boasts a very strong cast.  I really enjoyed Ben Affleck here, much more than his recent portrayal of Batman.  Of course, he’s working with a better script here.  The screenplay by Bill Dubuque tells a compelling story, creates likable characters, and contains lively dialogue.

But back to Affleck.  He really captures what it’s like to be a man like Christian Wolff.  He gets inside Wolff’s head, and he lets us know what he is thinking, which is impressive, because the rest of the cast is confused by his autistic personality.  Affleck nails the autism part, and we see him struggling to be sociable, as we know he wants to be, but it just doesn’t come easily for him.  When he makes a comment that is misunderstood at one point, he quickly quips “it was a joke,” and we know immediately that the line is simply a cover-up to mask his embarrasment.

Affleck also is completely believable as the math savant, as well as making for a cool unruffled assassin.  The scenes where we see Wolff in action are among the best in the movie.  I’ve really been enjoying Ben Affleck in recent years, in films like GONE GIRL (2014), RUNNER, RUNNER (2013), ARGO (2012), and THE TOWN (2010).  Heck, even though I did not like BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) at all, I thought he was pretty good as Batman.  For me, I first became an Affleck fan after seeing him portray George Reeves in HOLLYWOODLAND (2006).  His performance here in THE ACCOUNTANT might be his best since ARGO.

And Affleck is supported by a fine supporting class.  J.K. Simmons is solid at Treasury Chief Ray King, and I enjoyed Anna Kendrick as accountant Dana Cummings.  I particularly enjoyed her scenes with Affleck, thought they shared some chemistry, and I wish she had been in the movie more.

Cynthia Addai-Robinson was okay as Treasury Agent Marybeth Medina, as was John Lithgow as company owner Lamar Black.

Jeffrey Tambor makes his mark as Francis Silverberg, a man Wolff meets in prison and who is instrumental in helping Wolff get started in his new “career.”  And as shadowy hitman/enforcer Brax, Jon Bernthal is once again very good.  I seem to enjoy Bernthal now in nearly everything he does, and so it was fun to see him here as the man who’s tracking down Wolff from the other side of the law.  Granted, I enjoyed Bernthal more as the Punisher on DAREDEVIL, and I’m looking forward to his own PUNISHER  TV show, but still, he’s enjoyable here in THE ACCOUNTANT.

And I thought Robert C. Treveiler was particularly effective as Wolff’s hardnosed military father.  I wanted to hate the guy, but there was something redeemable about him, the way he saw things through.  I didn’t agree with what he was doing with his sons, but at least he was there for them.

I thought director Gavin O’Connor did a fine job.  I liked the way he told the story. It was clear that opening scene was holding back information, and I liked the way the film went back to that scene later to fill in some plot points.  I enjoyed the action scenes here, especially the scene where Wolff comes to the aid of two of his clients, an elderly couple, when some unsavory characters show up at their farm.

I also thought the ending was handled well.

THE ACCOUNTANT drew me in early and kept me there, with well-written characters, an interesting plot, solid peformances all around, and some decent excitement.

It all adds up to one very entertaining movie.

—END—