In a little over two weeks, I’ll get to meet Elizabeth Olsen. This is a big deal to me because she’s been among my favorite actors for a number of years, now – not that she’s been around for all that long. She caught my attention by single-handedly elevating the remake of Silent House from an okay movie to a pretty darned good one. And then she turned me into a full-fledged fan after I went back and watched her performance in the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene. There was a lot of talk that she might get an Oscar nomination for that one. It didn’t materialize that time out, but that takes nothing away from her efforts. She quickly established herself as one of the best in the business, of any age and of any experience level.
Wind River opened last weekend in a limited release of only four theaters. It expanded, this weekend, but still came nowhere within reasonable driving distance of where I live. But, I’m out of town and am taking advantage of being in Boston and catching this one while I can. I’ve seen – and own – every other movie she’s been in (except one she did with her sisters, Mary Kate and Ashley, when she was a kid) and wanted to see her latest before I got the chance to talk to her. Of course, the fact that she is also in Ingrid Goes West, a comedy with Aubrey Plaza, that opens this weekend in a whopping three theaters poses its own problem, but I’ll deal with these issues one at a time.
I already got to meet Olsen’s Wind River co-star Jeremy Renner, but that was over a year-and-a-half ago, so it’s too late to talk to him about this one. Still, he’s pretty great, too. Despite featuring a pair of powerhouse leads, it takes more than a great cast to make a great film, even when the cast delivers. Had Wind River featured an entirely different cast, it still would have caught my attention based on the trailer, alone. So, while one can feel pretty confident in Olsen and Renner, did the film live up to its promise?
Fortunately, coming along with the film’s reliable cast is an equally-reliable writer-director in the form of Taylor Sheridan. Actually, to clarify, Sheridan has been building a strong writing résumé with Sicario and Hell or High Water, but he has only directed one film prior to Wind River – a little-known horror movie from 2012 called Vile. I can’t speak to that one, since I haven’t seen it, but I can speak to Sicario and Hell or High Water. I liked the former and loved the latter, so seeing Sheridan’s name attached to Wind River gave me even more confidence that the film was going to be of high quality.
When a young woman is found dead on the Wyoming Native America reservation of Wind River, a local tracker (Renner) aids an FBI agent (Olsen) in her efforts to solve the mystery and bring the guilty party to justice. The film is inspired by true events, the details of which I have no knowledge. But, even had that not been the case, as I watched the film, one word kept occurring to me as the most appropriate description: authentic.
Every individual aspect of the film plays as honest, true, and sincere. And this is accomplished, similarly to A Ghost Story (though not to that extreme), through the conscious application of extreme restraint. This is a dynamic story, no matter the lens through which it is viewed. Many filmmakers would have been painfully tempted to “Hollywood it up” with the typical, supposedly crowd-pleasing clichés that we’ve all seen umpteen-thousand times. Sheridan shows great respect to the story and the thematic elements by foregoing the standard Hollywood tropes and playing it straight and genuine. Sheridan doesn’t pander and he doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence nor their sensibilities.
The film (from my perspective, at least) flies by. Sheridan’s direction and eye are buoyed by his own whip-smart script that betrays an understanding of seemingly basic concepts on a bafflingly complex level. The dialogue snaps, the events unfold at a brisk pace, and the two charming and charismatic leads captivate and force the audience to invest. Sheridan provides Olsen and Renner with two heroic and relatable protagonists that are only strengthened by the talents of the actors.
I try to avoid hyperbole. And I’m also aware of how easy it is to get caught up in the moment just after one has seen an amazing film for the first time. So, I’m not going to jump the gun and proclaim that both Olsen and Renner turned in my favorite performances of their careers in this film, but I will say, without hesitation, that both of their Wind River performances are in that conversation. And, as Sheridan does with his direction, they both accomplish this feat through restraint. The best performances are the authentic ones. I’m going to say that, again, and I’m going to put the whole thing in bold type. The best performances are the authentic ones. It’s not about grandiose displays of emotions, though those are the performances that tend to get the most attention. Whether obtusely theatrical or quietly subdued, acting is all about authenticity. And, as Olsen and Renner’s characters both have justification – whether professional or personal – for reigning in their emotions while they also must struggle with the deeply affecting nature of the case as it unfolds, the duo majestically toe the line, grounding their humanity in their need and desire to solve the case. It’s simply too late for them to do anything else. Olsen and Renner are both perfect in this film and maybe – hopefully – this will be Olsen’s time at the Academy Awards. If not, it’s just a matter of time.
As I said in my review for A Ghost Story, the biggest hurdle this film has to clear on the road to awards season is time. It’s awfully early in 2017 and people have very short memories. Then again, Hell or High Water was released at about this same time, last year, and it did pretty well for itself. Ultimately, the point is that Wind River is filmmaking at its finest and it serves as a thoughtful, adult-skewing option featuring some of today’s finest talent both in front of and behind the camera. It’s still expanding out into theaters, so you might have to be patient, for a little while longer. But, once it’s in your town, I urge you to reward Wind River with your time and money, just as it will reward you with a poignant and heartbreaking tale of reality.
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