Category Archives: Reviews

Columbus (2017): Composed, Contemplative, but a Little Too Quiet

Known for his video essays dissecting the style of other filmmakers, first-time director Kogonada brings a unique voice and eye for images to his debut picture. Two people find themselves intersecting in Columbus, Indiana, a center for modernist buildings. A Korean man, Jin (John Cho; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), is forced to come to the city when his father, an architecture professor, has a medical emergency. He meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson; The Edge of Seventeen), a young architecture enthusiast delaying her college education to take care of her unstable mother. They begin meeting regularly as Casey shows Jin her favorite buildings in the city.

As the leads of the film, Cho and Richardson form a believable companionship. There is a hint of romantic feelings between them, but the film never makes them explicit. This is a relationship closer to that of Once than a typical romance. Richardson plays Casey as a bright, curious young woman that cares so deeply about her mother that she would neglect her own desires, but unfortunately Cho can’t match her performance. His readings as Jin are often stilted as he tries to relate to Casey, but their similar situations are enough reason to justify their bond. Both characters are trapped in Columbus by a parent and their candid conversations while surrounded by beautiful buildings become a gentle form of mutual therapy.

Every object in Kogonada’s film feels deliberately chosen for aesthetic balance.

Kogonada revels in the modernist architecture of the city. He relies on his fixed, wide-angled camera to allow the audience to dwell in the environments and heavily incorporates shots of building exteriors as connective tissue between scenes. Even though the locations are immaculate with each piece of fabric and furniture precisely chosen, they never feel sterile. He frequently uses symmetry in his framings and one-point perspective that funnels the viewer’s attention deep into the image, similar to the compositions favored by Edward Yang. For Kogonada, each plane of the image is of value and action is frequently placed at multiple depths. There are no flat backgrounds that only provide pleasant scenery here. Kogonada’s multidimensional images have a still, contemplative beauty.

There are several points where the director uses dialogue to reference his intents as a filmmaker. Referring to their dinner, Casey’s mother comments that it needed more spice to which she replies, “I was going for something a little more subtle.” In another scene, a librarian posits that people not being interested in reading is “…not a crisis of attention, but a crisis of interest.” With each of these lines, Kogonada appears to be describing his own style. The film has a subtle tone and may not have enough overt emotion to keep everyone interested. It’s true that it could have used more flavor. Jin’s estranged relationship with his father is something that is mentioned but never fully fleshed out and it leaves his character lacking in comparison to Casey. His motivations and callous behavior relating to his father’s health don’t receive the depth needed to be fully sympathetic which drains the film of some its central drama. Kogonada’s debut may not be a full success, but his pensive tone and skill with image composition mark him as a filmmaker of high potential.

3/5 stars.

Some Freaks (2017): Social Outcasts Coming-of-age

A one-eyed boy and an overweight girl form the unlikely pairing at the heart of Some Freaks. The film is the directorial debut of playwright Ian MacAllister McDonald and follows Matt (Thomas Mann playing a role similar to his in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), the boy missing an eye, and Jill (newcomer Lily Mae Harrington), a heavyset punk transfer student. The film is separated into two sections. The first shows the two meeting when they are the only people in their biology class without a partner for a project. Each has been the victim of bullying and they quickly enter an awkward, but caring relationship. The second section picks up when Matt visits Jill at college, having been physically apart since graduation.

The film suffers from a rushed and amateurish first half. McDonald repeatedly uses title cards to skip forward in time to advance the relationships but, save for the necessary gap separating the film’s two halves, the leaps are distracting. They’re an indication of poor editing trying to create character progression. The camerawork makes this feel even more slapdash. The lighting can be strong, but the camera is constantly jostling around to the point that it becomes difficult to track characters that are simply taking a walk. The cast is held in extremely shallow focus which can in general be a good technique, but when they move the focus doesn’t move with them. McDonald has stated that this was a deliberate decision to depict the unstable nature of teenagers still defining themselves but that doesn’t stop the film from feeling like it was shot by a subpar cinematographer. The characters are sympathetic, but McDonald seems to be rushing toward the second half where he can explore his true interests.

Harrington gives a realistic, conflicted performance.

Some Freaks is about how relationships can change us and how personal change can affect our relationships. These teens are in flux and the second half of the film, by far the stronger portion, examines the consequences of their development. When Matt finally visits Jill at her college, she is not the girl he remembers. She looks and acts completely different. Even though she still cares for him, he is unable to reconcile her new self with the one he fell in love with. In this half, Harrington reveals herself as the film’s true star and a breakout talent. She must come to terms with who she was, who she wants to be, and whether Matt is a part of that. In one of the film’s best scenes, she delivers an eviscerating tongue-lashing that hits the core of their problem. They were brought together by their outsider status so Jill’s progression has removed what was the foundation of their relationship. Their dissolution is a raw and nuanced portrayal of a couple that finds themselves moving at divergent velocities.

McDonald deserves praise for focusing on these specific characters. Few films bother with humanizing people at the fringe of society. The closest we normally get are fake misfits that are one makeover away from being on the cover of a magazine. In an intimate, but depressing scene, Matt confesses that he had never thought about girls before Jill. He spent so much of his energy struggling to make it through each day amidst the tormenting of his classmates that he never had time to think about romance. These teenagers are truly at the bottom rung of their social ladder and it is refreshing to see how their relationships benefit them. Even as their romance fades, its impact remains. It helped them get through a difficult time and despite the heartbreak it’s end may cause, it will be a part of them as they move on in their lives. Some Freaks is a film filled with difficult, honest insights about our formational relationships, dampened by a jumbled first half.

3/5 stars.

The Girl Without Hands (2017): Gorgeous Art, Unnecessary Adaptation

The world of animation has becoming increasingly similar. Despite growing options with new technologies, most companies opt for computer generated 3D animation. As beautiful as these renderings can be, the lack of diversity is disheartening with Japan remaining as the main producer of feature length 2D animation. The Girl Without Hands is a welcome visual change, featuring a singular hand-painted 2D art style animated entirely by its director Sébastien Laudenbach. The film is an adaptation of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It is the story of a miller that mistakenly trades his daughter for wealth in a deal with the devil and follows her as she faces the fallout of his decision.

The expressive images are worthy of hanging up on a wall.

Laudenbach’s art is the film’s most distinctive quality. He uses a minimalist, yet expressive style. The images are less like drawings and more like etchings. Each frame has a colored background with objects shaded in rather than explicitly outlined in a sort of spartan impressionism. The background colors are textured and often have a gentle gradient that sets the mood for each scene and the brush strokes are painted on similar to watercolors. The film animates by having these strokes pulsate and is particularly effective when depicting water or wind. The rippling colors perfectly encapsulate the energy and movement of nature. Laudenbach also has a unique method of showing the emotional state of the characters. Because they are so minimally sketched, he can paint a broad stroke of color over them and even as the character moves, this mark remains, showing their lasting presence and the unchanging state of their mind. His indirect approach to his images gives the film its unmistakable storybook quality.

The vibrant colors are a joy to look at.

If only the screenplay wasn’t also of storybook quality. The original fable is short and the film, while running only 76 minutes, still feels overlong. The material hasn’t changed significantly in adapting it for the screen so there isn’t enough content to justify the runtime and what is present is too simplistic. As gorgeous as it is, the film is clearly an excuse to show of Laudenbach’s beautiful images. Several scenes are elongated just to feature the artwork. The story, with its fairytale roots, never produces any emotional response. This is a fantasy world that is too detached from our reality to create a connection. There is supposed to be a moral lesson about admonishing the pursuit of wealth, but it is delivered using blunt platitudes that are as generic as they are groan-inducing. A character says to the girl’s father, “You are rich. How could you be at peace?”. These aren’t new or creatively presented insights. This might be a trait that stems from the source material, but even so that doesn’t mean it translates well in a film. The few original flourishes added to the story are scenes that show the director’s gross and unnecessary fetish with genitals that has no place in something that was originally meant for children. Laudenbach’s artwork and animation are uniquely expressive and minimalist, but the story they present would have been better suited to a picture book, not a feature length film.

2/5 stars.

Detroit (2017): Unsettling, Infuriating, and Timely

Working again with writer/producer Mark Boal to make a historically based film, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) leaves military stories behind for a period piece set during the Detroit riot of 1967. As a brief, but informative intro animation explains, the city of Detroit had become increasingly segregated with many of its black citizens living in the crowded inner city patrolled by a predominantly white police force. A large-scale raid and arrest of an unlicensed bar leads to riots, city-wide destruction, and the deployment of the National Guard. The film follows an up-and-coming doo-wop group led by Algee Smith (Earth to Echo) as they retreat to a nearby motel to avoid the riots, only to be attacked by the local police.

The film is shot in a quasi-documentary style. Bigelow has used this technique before and she leans even harder into this direction here. She uses an unstable camera that rapidly whips between subjects and zooms in and out constantly as if a cameraperson is rushing to capture live action. This makes the film incredibly immersive and it would be easy to forget that this isn’t found footage from the actual time. Bigelow chooses to interweave real news video and photographs which makes this distinction even harder. She is also an expert at blocking her scenes. And by that I literally mean blocking. The film almost always features groups or crowds and the characters will routinely burst into frame and obstruct the camera’s view causing it to have to readjust around them. These cinematographic choices create a palpable feeling of boots-on-the-ground frenzy.

You will hate Poulter (left) because of this film.

There are times when the story can strain your patience. The film’s climax is a slightly overlong interrogation inside a motel where three Detroit police officers repeated assault and, in some cases, kill the mostly black tenants for a crime they have no physical evidence of. This depiction dramatizes an event using witness testimonies so, as the film states in the end credits, some liberties were taken during the recreation. The local police, led by Will Poulter (The Revenant) in an appropriately repulsive performance, continuously fail at drawing out a confession and the film shows each of their futile attempts. These start to wear thin as you wonder why the police, or the filmmakers, haven’t moved on already. At 143 minutes long, the movie would have improved with some editing in this particular scene. The incompetence, the racism, and the cruelty of the police becomes evident quickly which makes the extended sequences unnecessary. Bigelow may be using the length to emphasize the cast’s protracted suffering but the point has already been made and further emphasis without additional depth becomes somewhat redundant, even if these scenes are rooted in fact.

Despite some pacing issues, Bigelow uses the injustice on display to create a sense of terror and urgency. For these characters, the slightest misconstrued movement or innocuous comment could lead to a ruthless beating or worse, so every interaction is fraught with danger. It’s impossible to separate the events depicted in the film from our current problems in America. The actions of the police in the film combined with the horrifying news headlines of the past few years become both hideous and infuriating with later scenes involving John Krasinski (The Office) as a police union lawyer being blood-boiling in their blatant inequity. The inhumanity displayed by the authorities towards people of color makes for more than just a disturbing movie. It has been some time since we have had a film that can truly be described as polemic, but Detroit deserves that descriptor. Bigelow’s indictment of systemic racism and injustice in 1967 Detroit is an upsetting look into the tribulations of minorities at the hands of law enforcement that is infuriating and, sadly, relevant to our present world.

4/5 stars.

To the Bone (2017): A Grounded, Painful Look at Addiction

[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]

With glamorous images of people with seemingly perfect looks and illustrious lives exacerbated by social media, we are inundated with unrealistic ideals of how we should look and behave. For some, this can lead to harmful behaviors, namely eating disorders. To the Bone follows Ellen (Lily Collins; Mirror Mirror), a 20-year-old living with anorexia nervosa. She has just left her fourth treatment facility without showing any improvement and returns home to a stepmother who is unsure of what to do next. She finds one final physician who may be Ellen’s last chance at recovery.

Keanu Reeves (John Wick) turns up in an unexpected, but welcome supporting role. He plays Dr. Beckham, an eating disorder specialist known for his high success rate and unusual methods. Reeves plays Beckham as a tough, no-nonsense doctor. Instead of sterile clinical language, he is direct and almost confrontational. “I’m not going to treat you if you aren’t interested in living”, he tells Ellen. His experience makes him impatient with pleasantries, but detailed during actual treatment and his advice, however blunt, is filled with support. He genuinely cares for the well-being of his patients and Reeves’s confident performance highlights his intelligence, understanding, and compassion.

The physical effects of anorexia create some of the film’s most unsettling images.

Director Marti Noxon’s approach to group dynamics goes far beyond the typical addiction movie. Instead of only focusing on Ellen’s struggles, she takes time to explore the damage done to her loved ones. This ranges from a mother too hurt to look at her suffering daughter, a frustrated stepmother, an absent father, and a loving younger sibling who misses having her older sister in her life. Noxon understands that these afflictions also manifest differently. She uses the different patients in the treatment home to show the lengths to which people will go. Whether it’s laxatives, diet pills, or hiding bags full of vomit, these are people trapped by their disorder into an unstable frame of mind. As a test of her size, Ellen tries to wrap her thumb and forefinger around her bicep. The film is deeply disturbing in its depiction of the unrealistic, self-destructive ideals the patients impose on themselves and the rippling effects they have on their families.

Collins is frightening in her performance. She has written about her own struggles with eating disorders and she clearly draws from those personal experiences in her acting. Her progressively skeletal frame and gaunt facial features show her deteriorating condition. “You’re a ghost”, her mom says after seeing her. The film has faced some backlash over its depiction of anorexia, but it neither glorifies nor indicts people with eating disorders. It repeatedly states its position: that this an addiction and one without clean answers. When Ellen’s stepmother tries to tell her doctor that the disorder has something to do with her mother, he cuts her off and says, “It’s never that simple.” This isn’t a film about easy solutions or motivational speeches. Noxon delves into the obsessive behaviors of anorexics and the fractured families that may be both a source and symptom of the disorder. The only exception is a dream sequence near the conclusion that is embarrassing in its literalism and contradicts the film’s grounded tone. Save for this specific mistake, Noxon has created a realistic examination of the struggles of someone clinging to warped body image ideals and the turmoil it can create for those who love them.

4/5 stars.

Brigsby Bear (2017): “Dope as Shit, Man”

This a movie to watch with no prior information. If you’re willing to do that, suffice it to say that the film is a strange, hilarious, and heartfelt comedy.

If you need more than that, please read on. Minor plot details follow that tiptoe around spoilers.

Brigsby Bear is a story of a young man named James (Kyle Mooney) who is obsessed with a TV show about an intergalactic bear that fights an evil talking star in what seems to be a low budget 80s style production. James’s entire life has revolved around Brigsby (the titular bear) so when the show abruptly ends, he must adjust to normal living. He has no other context for regular human reactions and the film becomes both a coming of age and a fish out of water story of him learning about the real world while proving to it that his passion is worthwhile. To demonstrate what he has learned from his favorite show, he decides to make the film sequel. With no experience, money, or even, initially, friends, he writes a script, draws a storyboard, and starts his journey anyways.

James’s integration into modern society is a limitless supply of laughs. He has never had friends or been exposed to any type of media other than Brigsby so he frames everyone’s behavior in terms of plotlines from the show. Brigsby reacted in a certain way, so he assumes that he should too. The trouble comes in the many scenarios that Brigsby did not cover, namely parties, slang, and drugs and alcohol. In these cases, James makes the exact wrong choice and imitates others…poorly. His (mis)use of slang around the wrong people and the way he copies other people’s mannerisms to try to be normal are endearingly awkward. His good-natured spirit makes every faux pas equal parts hilarious and sweet.

James’s unbreakable spirit is magnetic.

The film’s success rests on Mooney’s pitch perfect performance. With even a trace of knowing satire or cynicism, the entire film would have fallen apart. Mooney instead plays James with the most childlike earnestness. Every interaction he has is free from judgement, ulterior motives, or ego. Mooney creates a genuine innocence that becomes the heart of the film. He approaches luxuries we take for granted with a contagious wonder and enthusiasm. In a world of forgotten dreams and suffocating realities, James is a dreamer with nothing but hope. His passion, dedication, and conviction are absolutely infectious, even if the project in question is ridiculous.

Director Dave McCary strikes a tone that precisely complement’s Mooney’s performance. The film never looks at its subjects with any sense of ridicule. His camera comes from a place of pure compassion and every character’s flaws or desires are treated with respect. For example, there is a detective who wanted to be a Shakespearean actor, but gave up when life got in the way and McCary gives his hopes the deepest sympathy. Like James, the film views the world as an open book, with each individual as an aspiring writer. They just need the belief in their own ability to say something. The tenderness of McCrary’s direction and Mooney’s sincere screenplay and performance create a film that reminds us of the passions we neglect and celebrates the desire to create that exists in all of us. It’s an offbeat, heartfelt, and hilarious counterpoint to cynicism and apathy.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Atomic Blonde (2017): Neon Action with a Convoluted Plot

Coming off the success of co-directing John Wick, stuntman-turned-director David Leitch left production on the sequel for his first solo outing, Atomic Blonde. Adapted from a graphic novel, the film is a cold war era spy story with Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) starring as Lorraine, a British MI6 agent tasked with recovering a list of undercover operatives taken from a killed MI6 agent in Berlin. The setup is familiar with both Skyfall and Mission Impossible using similar plots, but the film distinguishes itself with its unique, stylized action.

From the first frame, Leitch goes for a decidedly anarchic tone. The opening credits and intertitles are spray painted onscreen and the streets of East Berlin are riddled with graffiti and punks. His film breaks against the typical noir with its use of style and energy. Every set is bathed in a seedy neon green, red, or blue and he runs with this aesthetic even more than he did on John Wick. His commitment to this visual style provides a distinct look that is as noticeable as Lorraine’s hair color. Forget neo-noir, Leitch has styled Atomic Blonde as a neon-noir.

The sound design of the film provides a beating pulse to the action. The crack of gunshots is deafening and each strike in the frequent combat scenes creates an ear-splitting thump. Music blares constantly providing an electric or, in one case, ironic backdrop to the violence onscreen. The film uses an 80s heavy soundtrack featuring the likes of Depeche Mode, David Bowie, and even George Michael. Music is almost used as much as this year’s Baby Driver, but unlike that movie, the music never overshadows the action. In most cases, Leitch’s music choice adds a playfulness to the fighting and prevents the film’s violence from becoming too heavy.

Theron is a fearsome action star.

And Theron dishes out suffering like a professional. She isn’t the perfect action hero that glides easily through each enemy, nor is she a Jackie Chan-like fighter that stumbles through their encounters. She is tough, resourceful, and unrelentingly brutal. Leitch isn’t as proficient with hand-to-hand combat as he was with gunplay in John Wick. Some of the fight scenes lack the cohesion of better action films, but Leitch and Theron still deliver their fair share of beatdowns. The best of these takes place in apartment building used as a sniping spot by KGB agents where Leitch orchestrates a series of extended takes as Lorraine fights her way through her enemies. It doesn’t hold up to the masterful combat from The Raid and its sequel that the film is clearly mimicking but it does give us a clearer view of the merciless damage these agents inflict on each other without succumbing to the overediting of combat that plagues most action blockbusters today. Her hits land with a ferocity but we still see Lorraine falter. Several of the men are larger than her and their size gives them the upper hand. However, her fighting and her greater characterization are not just defined by her immense skill, but by her tenacity. These protracted fights become less about who is stronger, and more about who continues to come back after each blow. Theron’s defiant glares are the best indication that she has a resilience they can never hope to match.

As a cold war thriller, the plot in encased in paranoia. Lorraine’s orders are to trust no one, even her fellow MI6 agents. Several supposed allies appear, but potential betrayals are lurking around every corner and no one has a clear motive. The narrative can get lost in these turns. One too many reveals near the end start to unravel the story and character motivations leading to more confused shrugs than the shocked gasps the writers hoped for. The plot strains under these repeated twists as they undermine the plausibility of the preceding events. It makes the case for John Wick’s paper-thin revenge story. By using the simplest of setups, that film shifted the audience’s focus to its best feature, the action. Atomic Blonde’s story is its weakest element, but it can be enjoyed for its neon-drenched bloodshed and rousing soundtrack.

3/5 stars.

Dunkirk (2017): A Well Crafted, but Forgettable Ride

In his first historical film, director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) brings his talents to recreating the Dunkirk evacuation, where over 300,000 Allied troops, surrounded by Germans, were saved by hundreds of private boats that crossed the English Channel to rescue their soldiers. Rather than work with a linear story, Nolan splits the film’s focus into three separate viewpoints: soldiers on the beach awaiting help, a civilian (Mark Rylance; Bridge of Spies) and his son taking their personal boat to assist in the evacuation, and a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy; Mad Max: Fury Road) providing cover to the trapped soldiers.

Nolan’s strength as a writer has always been structure. Films like Memento and Inception, exploited their setup for suspense and the same happens here. The characters may be in different locations, but any building intensity is meant to be shared between them. Working with his regular composer, Hans Zimmer, he uses an ever-accelerating ticking clock as a metronome for the film’s tension and audio bridge between the perspectives. As the film cuts between each set of characters, the danger they face is carried forward and builds with mostly fruitful results. There is an overreliance on raw decibel power to create a feeling of intensity, similar to the sound mixing in Interstellar, that is not as effective as desired, but the film succeeds in making each disparate scenario equally precarious.

In the past, Nolan’s greatest weakness has been exposition. Needless, forced exposition that talks down to the audience as if the director’s greatest fear is that the masses will not be able to keep up with his intelligence even though his films, despite their often deliberately convoluted structure, are fairly followable. In Dunkirk, he breaks away from his tendency to overexplain. The film features little dialogue, instead relying on images of warfare to propel the story. With a few exceptions, namely Rylance’s seemingly sedated performance, he refrains from undue exposition.

The scale of the action is the film’s greatest triumph.

The lack of exposition also extends into character development. These are people whose names you will not know, even during the course of the movie. Perhaps this is a willful commentary on the war itself, claiming that the characters have little individual identity because they are each one of many who experienced the same trauma in WWII, but that does nothing to connect the audience to them. For all of Nolan’s immense technical skills, emotions have always been a major shortcoming. Even the basic plot of many of his films can be reduced to men whose lives are disrupted by engaging with emotions. The missing attachment to the characters makes the film more appreciable for its technique rather than its heart.

Dunkirk is an amusement ride. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, but it does accurately depict the film’s effect. The characters and actual plot are either simple or deliberately downplayed. Instead, we are meant to take in the expertly realized period and effects in the moment. Nolan and his team have recreated the incredible scale of this moment in history. Countless troops appear to line the beaches without any suspicion of computer generated assistance. He continues his love of practical stunts by using multiple real Spitfire fighter jets and the same wing-side camera shots from the famous docking scene of Interstellar. While enjoyable, the emphasis on historical accuracy over feeling has the unintended consequence of making the film forgettable. Like even great rollercoasters, it entertains during its runtime then fades away as soon as the ride ends. Dunkirk is well-crafted experience, just not a particularly emotional or memorable one.

3/5 stars.

Lady Macbeth (2017)

Referencing one of the most devious characters in literature is a bold choice for a film, but, thankfully, the title isn’t a spoiler. That being said, the lead character Katherine (Florence Pugh) does share many traits with the famous femme fatale. She is a young woman in England during the mid-1800s married to an older man. The marriage provides her with stability, but not affection. Her husband is entirely uninterested in Katherine, emotionally or physically, and spends his time away for business, leaving Katherine to her own devices.

The setting echoes Katherine’s lonely life. Her house, while huge, feels stark and empty. This isn’t a Merchant Ivory film where homes are filled with countless knick knacks. Despite her husband’s wealth, the furnishings are minimal and she is the only non-servant residing there. She is initially forbidden from leaving the house, but even when she does the outdoors offer no reprieve. The landscape is barren and desolate. It only highlights her increasing isolation and how meaningless she feels her life is.

A vacuous existence is Katherine’s greatest fear.

Pugh makes the perfect Katherine. A relative newcomer, she embodies the ideals of a woman of her time while believably progressing into aberrant behavior. Many actors playing characters in the past have an incongruous look. Their body and features can be too sculpted for the simpler time. Pugh, while still attractive, has a more era appropriate frame. In her blue dress, she is the image of upper class England. As takes extreme measures to control the direction of her own life, her ruthless determination comes through. Pugh’s tenacious performance causes Katherine to be an intriguing character, even as her actions become heinous.

Director William Oldroyd makes some interesting casting choices. Improving diversity in film has fortunately entered public discussion as of late, but period pieces have always been an issue. How do you incorporate actors of different races when a film’s setting wouldn’t have allowed it? Oldroyd chooses anachronism which results in a welcome change. There is some initial confusion when actors of color are shown in positions unexpected for the time, but it quickly fades to the background. Unfortunately, the plot results in negative outcomes for most of the non-white cast which is alarming. It’s impossible to speculate on whether this was coincidence or not, but either way it gives the film an unwelcome nastiness.

Everything changes for Katherine when she meets one of the men working on her land and begins an affair with him. Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) finally brings some excitement into her empty life so when her father-in-law returns to scold her and beat Sebastian, she does what she believes is necessary to preserve her only passion. This is where the film hits its stride. Lady Macbeth proves to be about the limits of selfishness and, later, self-preservation in the face of accepted morality. The lengths to which Katherine goes are equal parts amusing and mortifying. As she descends deeper into depravity, the cause of her actions comes into question. Is this the result of her failed marriage? Loneliness? Or maybe this is just the manifestation of an impulse already inside of her? Oldroyd hints at answers for each of these questions but prefers to luxuriate in Katherine’s increasingly extreme measures. Pugh’s unyielding performance and the almost transgressive narrative turns make Lady Macbeth a wicked drama with a remarkably sinister lead.

4/5 stars.

Wind River (2017)

After scripting both Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan made a name for himself as a writer of taut action films; light on exposition but heavy on tension. He makes his directorial debut with Wind River. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) plays Cory, a US Wildlife Service agent that stumbles upon a dead body in the Wind River Native American reservation. He recognizes the body as the best friend of his daughter, who also died years earlier. He, along with the under-resourced local police and FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen; Martha Marcy May Marlene), search for her killer in the harsh backdrop of frigid Wyoming.

Renner commits an admirable effort, but is miscast. He elongates his speech and uses short sentences to make himself seem world weary, but his still isn’t believable as the character. 25 years ago, this role would have been played by Tommy Lee Jones. His performances always feature a curt directness that suits Cory’s mountain man characterization but Renner can’t match Jones’s brand of gruff credibility. Olsen’s ingénue helps him seem experienced in comparison, but his performance falls just short of the verisimilitude needed.

Gil Birmingham (right) and the Native cast deliver the standout performances.

For all of Sheridan’s history with succinct writing, this is his weakest script. It’s still well-written with a twisting plot far above most other films, but has some clumsy dialogue and exposition. The film begins with a flowery poem that never amounts to anything and the tragic backstory about Cory’s daughter is awkwardly repeated, even in scenes where it has no relevance. The entire subplot is a manufactured method to make Cory more sympathetic but has little material effect on his behavior. His actions would have been the same without it and the film would have benefited from reduced exposition. Sheridan frequently shifts the focus back to Cory’s past at the expense of the greater story: the plight of the Natives in modern America. Perhaps without the extra eyes of a different director, some of these missteps made it through to the final version.

Many will compare this film to the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Yes, it features a murder in a wintry rural setting, but that is where the similarities end. While there are brief moments of humor, Sheridan isn’t interested in the sardonic wit of the Coens. The closest analog is Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Both films are about the fringes of society and the suffering of the people who reside there. The Native reservation is depicted as a desolate place. A land and a people that have been mistreated for so long that hope is a thing of the past. Several characters are shown as frustrated with the systemic disadvantages they face and the vicious cycles they are limited to. When Jane sees the victim has been raped and asks if their medical examiner is qualified, the police chief answers simply “He’s kept busy.” Everything has an air of accepted despair. Sheridan aptly uses this as the prevailing tone of the film. The overwhelming misery creates apprehension. Injustice is a daily occurrence so the prospect of failing the investigation has a high possibility. It surely wouldn’t be the first unsolved crime for the area. By ingraining the futility of reservation life into the plot and atmosphere, Sheridan creates an action film with a tense, discomforting bleakness.

4/5 stars.