Wind River + Good Time: The Dregs of Cannes

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Wind River (*)

In the last two years, Taylor Sheridan has become the newest member of that rare species known as the “writer-auteur”: a screenwriter, like Paddy Chayefsky, Charlie Kaufman, and Aaron Sorkin, whose vision defines the movies he works on more than the directors helming his scripts. And if every such writer has a storytelling “specialty” – Kauffman likes the absurd, Sorkin the snappy – Sheridan’s credits (Sicario, Hell or High Water) testify to his interest in stories about rural, rugged America. Wind River marks Sheridan’s first major effort as a director,[1] and in the spirit of auteurism, its plot – a Wyoming hunter (Jeremy Renner) and an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) try to solve an Indian girl’s murder – fits so well with the rest of Sheridan’s oeuvre that critics have taken to collectively branding it, Sicario, and Hell as the “American Frontier” trilogy.

What’s always separated Sheridan from his fellow writer-auteurs, however, is the fact that his stories aren’t very interesting. In Sicario and Hell, he simply recycled ideas (“The feds don’t know anything,” “Morality is gray”) that older movies like No Country for Old Men covered with far more nuance. And in Wind River, that trend only continues. Sheridan spends a lot of energy trying to provide a sympathetic portrayal of the working class; towards the end, he even tries to spice things up with an examination of the dark side of masculinity. But his portrayal of rural life is hampered by his belief that the mere depiction of hardship is a mark of profundity – his “messages” about poverty carry all the depth of the vague proclamations TV pundits love to make about Trump and “the forgotten working class.” And the movie’s attempt to depict masculinity’s excesses only repeats what movies like Lady Macbeth and The Beguiled already did before.

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Even as a basic story, moreover, Wind River is little more than a shameless rip-off of Sicario. Renner’s character, like Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro, is a jaded yet badass killer who harbors a secret past of loss. Olsen’s FBI agent, like Emily Blunt’s FBI agent, is a morally indignant idealist who discovers that rules only get you so far. (Needless to say, neither Renner nor Olsen proves even remotely memorable.) And the resolution to Wind River’s mystery, like the resolution to Sicario, is yet another riff on how true “justice” entails a willingness to break with established procedure. The only thing distinctive about Wind River (vis-à-vis Sicario) is that it’s told from the perspective of the jaded male character instead of the idealistic female one – but that change in perspective doesn’t lead to any new takes on what are already very banal ideas regarding the law and human nature.

I could go on about Wind River‘s flaws. The symbolism it uses – in an early scene, Renner’s character shoots down a bunch of wolves circling a flock of sheep – is crude. And when it’s not shaking uncontrollably, Ben Richardson’s camerawork is a weak attempt at recreating the desolate atmosphere that Roger Deakins skillfully evoked in Sicario. But all of these issues are simply outward manifestations of the same basic problem: Taylor Sheridan just isn’t a thoughtful director or writer. Far from being an “American Pedro Almodóvar” (per Hell’s Chris Pine), he’s a simplistic filmmaker who imbues his movies with just the right amount of cynical “realism” to leave critics with their mouths watering. The fact that the Cannes Film Festival screened this movie represents yet another stain on that festival’s record.

 

Image courtesy of A24.

Good Time (**)

The plot of Good Time is fairly simple: a New York bank robber named Connie (Robert Pattinson) wants to spring his mentally challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie) out of jail. In the hands of the Safdie brothers, however, this storyline provides just the foundation for what proves to be a gripping assault on the senses. When the brothers commit the robbery that initially lands Nick in jail, their actions are portrayed not with calm establishing shots but a relentless series of shaky, disorienting close-ups, as though their internal agitation were bursting its way onto the screen. Later, as Connie makes his way through nighttime New York, the Safdies use varying hues of neon lighting – red, green, blue, purple, and more – to turn his trip into a voyage through a warped hell. Add the tense electronic music that’s always playing in the background, and you’ve got a thriller with style to keep you hooked on just about every front.

The big problem with Good Time, however, is that style is all it has. Its underlying story supposedly centers on Connie and Nick’s complicated relationship: even though Connie loudly proclaims his commitment to protecting his brother, he also exploits Nick’s disability as he sees fit. Yet the Safdie brothers are so focused on the movie’s stylistic aspects that they only get around to developing this relationship in the very last scene. When placed alongside Bong Joon-ho’s Mother – another movie in which someone does whatever it takes to get a mentally challenged family member out of jail – Good Time’s depiction of the dark ambiguities of familial love feels weak, as though the Safdies merely view it as a vehicle for showing off their technique.

Image courtesy of A24.

The rest of Good Time is only worse. The Safdies don’t have anything to say about the underworld they portray – life is tough, criminals are complicated – that Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola didn’t cover back in the 70s. Interesting characters pop up, only to vanish after a few minutes. The main storyline gets sidetracked midway through the film by a rather meaningless subplot. And even the style eventually disappoints: towards the end, the Safdies use more and more establishing shots, as if to acknowledge the limitations of the close-up-heavy approach they initially adopted so fervently. Like Wind River’s Taylor Sheridan, the Safdies never prove themselves capable of sustaining or developing things (be they ideas or visuals) over an extended period of time.

The one thing that redeems Good Time is the strength of the acting. The Safdies’ general insistence on using close-ups means that Pattinson and Safdie have to rely solely on facial expressions to convey their characters’ thoughts. And both of them certainly live up to the challenge. Even if they never reach the level of sublimity you can find in many silent movies, they still prove remarkably adept at holding your interest, and you can’t help but hope that everything will work out for their characters. If the story around them were equally impressive, Good Time would be a lot more memorable than it actually ends up being.

Image courtesy of A24.

***

Wind River (2017) Good Time (2017)
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen Robert Pattinson, Ben Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi
Running Time: 107 minutes 99 minutes
MPAA Rating: R R
Produced by: Matthew George, Basil Iwanyk, Peter Berg, Wayne L. Rogers Sebastian Bear-McClard, Oscar Boyson, Terry Dougas, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis
Written by: Taylor Sheridan Josh Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Directed by: Taylor Sheridan Josh and Ben Safdie

***

[1] Technically, Sheridan made his directorial debut in 2011 with Vile, an arthouse horror movie. But unlike Wind River, that film never got a theatrical release.