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.
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.
The typical movie about aliens coming to earth is a war movie where humanity has to fight off their attackers. Arrival chooses to examine this situation from two other perspectives: a linguist trying to communicate with them and the divided nations struggling to deal with this potential threat and its social and economic implications. Amy Adams (Man of Steel) plays Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics hired by the government to find out why the aliens have come to earth. She is aided by Ian Donnely (Jeremy Renner; The Hurt Locker), a theoretical physicist, and led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker; Lee Daniels’ The Butler). As they make contact with the aliens, Louise discovers they use an extremely complex form of writing and struggles to understand them while dealing with exhaustion and visions of a young child.
The most frustrating, but realistic, aspect of the film is how terrible earth’s nations are at anything that requires coordination. After the aliens arrive, people are in disarray, economies tank, and the media goes wild with conspiracy theories and unfounded, inflammatory advice. Initially, the nations form a coalition and share their progress, but that changes when one country learns of something that might be a potential weapon. They immediately go offline and the rest of the world follows, effectively ending any cooperation despite its clear benefits. The aliens are viewed from a military defense perspective, not a scientific one. The Colonel tells Louise that everything she does has to be reported up to “a group of men asking ‘How can this be used against us?'”. Their fear causes them to make grave mistakes and construe any alien action (or non-action) as a potential threat of war. The script very convincingly captures how the mentality of self-preservation would likely doom any chance of a unified global effort.
The linguistics perspective provides a fresh take on familiar subject matter. Louise’s slow discovery process with the aliens is fascinating. Despite the incredibly complicated nature of the task, the closest parallel is a parent teaching a child to read, but with enormous consequences. Louise and Ian learn and teach certain words until they are able to form and understand rudimentary sentences. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) shoots the film with the foreboding tracking shots he has become known for. Each step forward is hard-earned and grants reprieve from the threat of conflict present throughout their meetings. Some may find the pacing of their discovery to be sluggish, but it feels realistic given the difficulty of their objective.
The veracity of Arrival‘s interesting angle is damaged by a hokey twist. There are hints that there is more to a character’s life than explicitly stated, but when this comes to fruition the deeper element is revealed to be a giant plot hole. As different governments plan to take offensive actions, Louise and Ian are working against their own government as much as they are an alien language. This creates an interesting dilemma as it is unclear how they will overcome this obstacle, but instead of attempting to grow the situation towards a climax, the screenwriter, or perhaps the writer of the short story the film is based on, uses a sci-fi element as a get-out-of-jail-free card to resolve the conflict. It is in complete opposition with the film’s sober tone and damages its intent. Arrival‘s realistic approach to encountering aliens is debilitated by a contrived plot device.