Actor Taylor Sheridan certainly came bolting out of the gate as a screenwriter, with his scripts for 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water displaying a firm grasp of pulp storytelling dynamics and an eagerness to explore the darker aspects of the human condition. (That both films had terrific directors in charge, with Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie respectively, definitely didn’t hurt.)
Wind River, Sheridan’s first attempt at directing one of his own scripts, is a similarly tough, intelligently elevated B-movie, bolstered by unexpectedly deft novelistic touches and an exceptional, contents-under-pressure lead performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s got a kick.
I’m not sure when the phrase “the dialogue sounds written” became a put-down when we talk about movies. It’s good that people are hip to cinema as a visual medium and all, but smart, sculpted dialogue—from Shakespeare to Billy Wilder—is something to celebrate. In a movie age when words are meant to sound improvised by the actors (and often are), Taylor Sheridan’s talk is crafted to a degree that sometimes rings theatrical by comparison. Sheridan copped a well-justified Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination last year for Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western rife with carefully shaped, literate dialogue. You bet the dialogue sounds “written.” For this we give thanks.
A well-traveled actor before his writing breakthrough on Sicario (2015), Sheridan obviously understands the kind of material with which actors make hay: revelations, confessions, pauses, subtle shifts in power. Sicario and Hell or High Water were ably directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively, but Sheridan directs his own material in the new film Wind River, which premiered at SIFF earlier this year.
The characters in current superhero movies must’ve grown up reading comic books. In Marvel’s run of blockbusters, Iron Man and Thor and the gang (well, maybe not Captain America) are steeped in cultural references; they know all the clichés of pulp fiction, even as they embody them. Aware of the absurdity of wearing tights and wielding magical hammers, they make jovial banter about it when they’re not busy saving the world. This self-conscious tendency reached its peak in Guardians of the Galaxy, a stealth-bomber sendup of the superhero movie.
Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t top Guardians in that department. But writer/director Joss Whedon balances comedy and derring-do with dexterity, and this sequel to 2012’s top grosser doesn’t stall the franchise.
Within the pages of an 1867 Emile Zola novel lie the seeds of film noir. The hothouse cravings and bloody deeds of Thérèse Raquin travel in a straight line to James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, books that became a poisoned wellspring for the tawdry postwar American cinema known as noir. Zola gives you the skeleton of the form, fleshed out with a bored married woman, a handsome artist, sexual combustion, and murder. This corker has been newly filmed, in its original period setting, as In Secret—an unfortunately stolid version of Zola’s story.
Rising star Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) plays the central role. Thérèse has been raised by her fearsome aunt (Jessica Lange, almost but not quite breaking through to something formidable), whose own son Camille (Tom Felton) has been a sickly near-brother to Thérèse during childhood.
A syllabus of smart ideas rather than a persuasive life-changing journey, Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts is another in a long line of recent cinematic Bildungsroman. That fancy literary handle describes stories about sensitive souls, usually a young man, coming of age — or trying to — courtesy of eye-opening and/or mind-blowing experiences. Hollywood and indie helmers alike continue to be hot for a particular big-screen variant of this genre: movies about not-so-young Peter Pans stuck in something like permanent adolescence, dudes still struggling to make it over the hump into adulthood. (Judd Apatow and Paul Rudd, endearing poster boys for arrested development, are still working the growing-up meme in December’s This Is 40.)
As the old doo-wop ditty warns, growing up is hard to do, so boyos from Holden Caulfield to James Dean’s rebel without a cause rarely have an easy ride into maturity. But don’t look for anything disturbing or even majorly eye-opening in Liberal Arts, Radnor’s second effort as writer-director-actor (he’s also familiar from TV’s How I Met Your Mother).
Brainy (MFA, Tisch School of the Arts), pop-culturally canny (he played Benjamin Braddock on Broadway) and good-hearted (no matter how disillusioned, even suicidal, his characters are, they don’t cast dark shadows or skew mean), Radnor paints movies in shades of sitcom pastel. In sharp contrast to the acid bath that was The Graduate, his Liberal Arts is a soft-focus view of how painless growing up affluent and self-absorbed in today’s America can be. (His debut film, happythankyoumoreplease, tackled similar subject matter.)
Paranormal investigators Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) spend their time finding the fraudulent in every outbreak of the weird and inexplicable. “We look for red lights,” Weaver’s perpetually pinch-faced prof lectures her class. “Discordant notes … things that shouldn’t be there.” And there you have it, the spot-on definition of Red Lights, a discordant thing that shouldn’t be there, or here, or anywhere.
Stultifying from start to finish, this mess of a movie is supremely incoherent—plot-, dialogue- and character-wise. Not one moment is visually arresting or suspenseful or even connected to the one that follows. All the players are dour, affectless, implausible. Even the climactic twist fails to shake you out of your stupor; so confused and clumsy is its presentation that one of the characters has to keep explaining … and explaining … what just happened.
Keep in mind, for future reference, that Rodrigo Cortés—writer, director and editor—is entirely responsible for spawning this misshapen thing. Let out to play from the single-location constraints of Buried, Cortés tries for what he must imagine are stylistic pyrotechnics. His camera circles and careens and jump-cuts, not because there are valid reasons for seeing any part of this particular movie world that way, but because that’s what arty filmmakers do, isn’t it?