Wind River (2017)

Wind-River-Poster-1Taylor Sheridan has really carved out a space for himself in the past few years, with his writing credits and now directorial debut in Wind River. Starting with Sicario the brilliantly bleak and nihilistic tale of drug cartels and boarder force facing off against one another, his talent for writing modern American politically tinged adult drama became self-evident. The dive into true western stylings yet again payed off in Hell or High Water with great performances and its examination of the modern American South. Now we have his first effort at the helm of his own written work and he yet again delivers, although maybe slightly less convincingly than before.

In Wind River he brings his modern American western noir to the snow covered hills of Wyoming. Based around the gruffly brooding hunter Cory Lambert played with conviction by Jeremy Renner, a man estranged from his wife after the mysterious death of his daughter. One day he is working on his ex-Father in laws Native American Reservation when he discovers the body of a native girl who has been sexually assaulted, it is then up to him and an FBI officer fresh in from Vegas played by Elizabeth Olson to find out who is the culprit and to bring justice to this solitary area once again.

What this film does well is create the atmosphere of a barren and forgotten part of America. Whilst Native American’s are so often associated with the desert plains of Texas and Nevada, snowy Wyoming is where some must reside having been pushed off their natural land. We are deep in no man’s land where everywhere is hard to get to and conditions are deadly for anyone not wearing about 4 layers of clothing. Every shot involving the landscape is drenched in stark white with snow covering every surface, layer this on top of the bleak lives of some of Sheridan’s characters and we have what is quite a harrowing tale of a slice of modern America which has never been seen on screen before.

In Renner we have a main character who is quiet and secretive who rarely raises his voice above a low murmur, he plays the character with a real sense of realism. We can see that this man has gone to hell and back and his working on this case is only making him more determined to avenge his child. The Native American population are also deeply troubled, none of them seem especially surprised at the crime, the young men are off taking meth or in prison and women are often treated badly by the Caucasian population of the area. Sheridan evokes all of this really well and gives the film a definite pathos through his use of the atmosphere of the setting and the descriptions and representation of the Native American community.

This is not to say that I thought it was without problems, there is a definite sense that this was directed by a screenplay writer. What I mean by this is that there are multiple different scenes in which people will stop and start describing their emotions in long poetic speeches which does happen a few too many times for me to be completely invested in some characters. These speeches are very nicely written but you can’t help but imagine that if these were in the scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water that both of their Directors probably have trimmed one or two of them down a bit for sake of pacing. I also felt that Elizabeth Olson’s character was slightly underdeveloped for some of the involvement in the story she had. There are moments where she is at one moment a newcomer to the town and then suddenly is totally invested in everyone on the reservation and involved in the case. Whilst both these issues did tar the film slightly for me there was still enough intrigue and atmosphere in the story for these to not really ruin much of the film. Ultimately the film is successful in delivering a Top of the Lake/The Killing style feature film based in an original and grief drenched story of a community little addressed in films.

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Wind River (2017)

Serpico: Observations and Thoughts

serpico

“I’m not denying for a minute that I’m attracted to the radical…I’m attracted to the questioner. I don’t know if life is possible without it.”- Quote from the documentary By Sidney Lumet (2016, Nancy Buirski).

It’s incredibly apt that each poster of this film that I find has a different shading to the face of Al Pacino, who plays the titular character, police officer Frank Serpico. A man who inhabited many different disguises, both metaphorically and literally, the real truth laying in his story is that he had to spend most of his time acting to reveal the truth, and the truth was so powerful that they had to act it out.

Serpico (1973) was directed by one of my all time favourites, Sidney Lumet, known best for 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976), which are all up in my pantheon of classics. Honestly, each film has its own aspects which empower it, Paddy Chayefsky script in Network is brilliant and shining, while Al Pacino absolute tears into the roles in both of his collaborations with Sidney Lumet, plus John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon is fantastic. 12 Angry Men too has a legendary status, being one of the most brilliant chamber pieces ever put on-screen, as Henry Fonda maneuvers throughout the ethics of 11 other jurors to challenge prejudices.

Naturally then, Lumet’s work in Serpico follows the similar human elements his work informally trademarked, as Frank Serpico presented to us at the beginning bleeding out in a car in the dark, navigates his way through a corrupt police system as an idealistic crusader hellbent on bringing to light the dirty underbelly of the New York Police Department. Al Pacino’s face is seared into cinema history, mainly for his roles where he presents the hidden depths of anger and violence which come bursting out, The Godfather saga and Scarface mainly, but Lumet plumbs a different sort of depth in Serpico, as the haze of darkness hanging over Al Pacino’s usual roles is surprisingly absent. Frank Serpico is a happy guy, at least to begin with. He works hard, plays hard, and loves and believes with his soul in what he does. It’s through the grinding bureaucracy, the infectious and slimy corruption of good men doing nothing and bad men exploiting their power, that Serpico enters into a world of frustration, danger and pain, but mostly on that side of pain more than anger (although when he gets angry, its electrifying). He is a man pushed to the extreme, while all he wants to do is his job. He doesn’t want to die for his cause, he’s a crusader not a martyr and ultimately he just wants to be a police officer without having to be a corrupt one. I’m sure the screenplay has been praised to high heaven, but the work of Norman Wexler and Waldo Salt on this script is iconic, and Al Pacino’s performance combined with Lumet’s direction makes this a true gold piece of cinema history.

What can I say that is new about Serpico? It certainly shares the same thematic pains of another film I saw recently although I did not address it on the blog, Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica, another iconic film from the Italian Neo-Realist movement. The real frustrations of even the smallest social actions, the true horror that lays exposed behind our shallow stories of evil gangsters and heroic cops is the cowardice and collective guilt carried by those in all levels of society, the protectors and attackers, the constant passing of the buck of responsibility around. Talking of Italian Neo-Realism, the producer of this film Dino Laurentiis not only produced classics such as Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi) and Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim), but he also produced two earlier reviewed Fellini films, La Strada and Nights Of Cabiria. Funny how things sometimes work.

The cinematography, that pure deep focus deep staged cinematography is a faded technique now, the glossy TV cinematography which we’re all accustomed to was nowhere to be seen at the time, and as a result the close-ups in the film feel immense in weight, as we study Serpico’s face for the signs of his feelings, his emotions. Honestly it’s that gorgeously subtle cinematography which allows the screen to breathe, wide and comfortable and only pulling us in tight for times of great intensity. There’s so much going on with the story, that I find it hard to focus on the more grounded elements, but without a doubt the score by Mikos Theodorakis, is lush and elegant and beautifully underscores the action of the film. He also created the score for Zorba The Greek (1969, Michael Cacoyannis), one of my favourite stories and one of my favourite scores of all time.

I’ve spent a lot of words referencing other films in this Observations and Thoughts post, but that’s because its cinematic history is so rich that I find it hard not to dive into. Of course the real power behind what makes Serpico great besides its cinematic presence, its real presence. The story of Frank Serpico’s fight against corruption was true, the front page story was published three years before the film was released. It exists as a testament and an incendiary indictment of a culture it was still very close to in time. Sidney Lumet’s commitment to the truth of the story, embellishing and re-moulding the real narrative as any film project will do to condense years of time and people into a couple of hours, means he never loses sight of the soul of Frank’s story, ending the film as Al Pacino reads Frank Serpico’s real speech before the Knapp Commission.

This interview shows a man still haunted by the pain of an unjust band of brothers whose main aim should be to serve and protect. This half interview half manifesto is a call by Frank Serpico to help really tackle with an incredibly nuanced and complex issue. The demonisation of communities and/or the police is in part a driving force of the degradation and the high standards he expects the police to maintain. It’s the power of Serpico himself, a reluctant demoralised hero who had courage and standards, and the excellence behind the team who created the film which mythologised him and disseminated his story, which keeps it relevant. Serpico works as a film, because of the questions it poses, and it works as an inspirational myth of reality because of the answers it gives. The conflict of police versus “x” runs deeps in today’s society, and the continued lack of accountability of those in positions of power continues to be a crucible for anger and violence in the world today. The world can still take a page from Serpico’s handbook.

In a world where ideologies are collapsing faster than a house of cards, its important that the lamps he lit stay lit, because if we only look down at the mud, we won’t see the stars

-Alex

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Serpico: Observations and Thoughts