Film reviews round-up: Wind River, It, The Work, Insyriated, Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beat

An American frontier thriller, coulrophobia on full blast, therapy at Folsom Prison, an intimate Syrian war drama, and a pithy veteran Labour MP

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 07 September 2017 12:18
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Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner star in Taylor Sheridan’s pensive murder mystery, set in the icy Wyoming wilderness
Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner star in Taylor Sheridan’s pensive murder mystery, set in the icy Wyoming wilderness

Wind River (15)

★★★★☆

Dir: Taylor Sheridan, 107 mins, starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Jon Bernthal, Jeremy Renner, Martin Sensmeier, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene

Wind River is the third part in actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s “modern frontier trilogy” (after Sicario and Hell And High Water) and Sheridan’s first film as director. It’s an American thriller that will certainly appeal to fans of Scandinavian noir.

Although set in Wyoming (supposedly in the spring), this is a story that unfolds in a very bleak and icy environment in which the wind chill factor is always well below zero. It’s very well written, albeit a little portentous and self-conscious. The film digs away at the hidden grief of its characters while every so often exploding into extreme violence.

The prelude here shows a girl running across the snow. She’s the victim whose death sets the plot in motion – an 18-year-old Native American woman called Natalie Hanson who was fleeing for her life and who ran six miles across the snow in bare feet when the air was so cold that even to breathe it seared her lungs.

Instead of a Wallander-like detective, the film offers us a wildlife ranger called Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner.) He’s an expert tracker and hunter who wears white to help him blend into the scenery. His job is to shoot wolves and mountain lions that may be threatening the livestock on the Wind River reservation.

Wind River - Trailer 2

Renner plays him as if he is a modern-day equivalent to one of those laconic cowboy heroes in old westerns. He never seems rushed, even at the most dangerous moments, and he speaks in aphorisms. (“Wolves don’t kill unlucky deer. They kill the weakest,” is a typical one-liner.) The only surprise is that he doesn’t chew and spit out tobacco.

Renner is a charismatic actor and this is an appealing performance – even if it isn’t a remotely credible one. We learn that beneath his laidback exterior, the tracker is eaten up with grief over the death of his daughter, who was roughly the same age as Natalie and died in similar circumstances.

As in Sicario, a female FBI agent lands up in a community in which she is a complete outsider. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) has arrived in the icy Wyoming wilderness straight from Las Vegas. She is not equipped for the conditions and doesn’t appear to know what she is doing. “What were they thinking sending you here,” a local is heard to complain. We’ve already guessed, though, that Banner is far smarter and more resilient than she seems as she stands shivering in the snow.

Renner and Olsen appear together in Marvel Avengers movies. They have an obvious rapport as the odd couple drawn together by the case. The mystery here doesn’t take enormous ingenuity to solve. There are so few people around anyway that it’s easy to narrow down the suspects.

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Throughout the film, Sheridan gives us little insights into the callous way that Native Americans are still treated in the US. There are no FBI statistics on the disappearance of Native American women. Their abductions or deaths don’t provoke much in the way of sympathy or intervention from the authorities.

The young menfolk struggle to find work. Many drift off into drug taking, delinquency and petty crime. This is all in the background. The filmmakers aren’t sermonising. They’re just showing how it is.

One of the great pleasures of Wind River is its slow burning quality. This may be a thriller, but there’s always time for the tracker to share his wisdom about everything from the footprint of lions to how to ingratiate yourself with horses. (“Let him smell you, let him breathe you, let him know you – he will love you for life.”) Sheridan throws in plenty of very picturesque shots of snowy landscapes.

This means the tempo is on the languid side. Lambert likes to sit and think. He does drive his snow bike at speeds of 80 mph or more but that doesn’t mean he is ever in a hurry. Like Hawkeye in Last Of The Mohicans, he relies on stealth, not speed. The elegiac music from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis adds to the film’s dreamy, slow motion quality, and to the feeling of sadness and loss with which the story is imbued.

There’s an attraction between the tracker and the FBI agent but Sheridan doesn’t overemphasise it at all. There’s something perfunctory, too, about the way he sketches in the details of Lambert’s family life, introducing us only in passing to his wife (from whom he is separated) and his young son. He leavens matters with an occasional flickering of humour. Confronting yet another freezing day, Olsen’s FBI agent sighs in exasperation to a colleague: “Didn’t you get the memo that it’s spring.” Renner’s tracker also has a nice line in deadpan irony.

James Jordan gives a memorably nasty, self-pitying and creepy performance as the security guard, Pete. When he is on screen, the film develops an edge. For the rest of the time, the tone is more meditative than confrontational. Wind River is still a very absorbing film to watch – a murder mystery with a strong lyrical and philosophical streak.

It (15)

★★★★☆

Dir: Andres Muschietti, 135 mins, starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Javier Botet, Sophia Lillis

There’s a double dose of nostalgia in the tremendous new Stephen King adaptation. The film manages the feat of being very evocative and, on occasion, quite terrifying. It harks back to the great Stephen King adaptations of the 1980s, most notably Stand By Me. Those films in turn often demonstrated a yearning for lost childhoods and times past; the dear dead days beyond recall.

King’s novel has already been made for the screen once before, as a TV series with Tim Curry as the demonic clown. Now, it returns in a new version. The part of the book dramatised here was set in the late 1950s, but the filmmakers have moved the action forward to the Eighties, the period in which King actually wrote the book.

Director Andrés Muschietti (whose only previous feature was the 2013 horror Mama) proves himself equally assured at working with young actors on what is, on one level, a very traditional rites of passage story, and in spilling blood in vast quantities whenever the need arises.

The film unfolds over one summer in Derry, a small American town that is cursed. When kids do their research in the local library, they discover that people here have a nasty habit of dying and disappearing. Every 27 years, a fiendish clown with teeth that the average Great White Shark would envy reappears to harvest some new flesh.

Muschietti starts the movie in the pouring rain. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a stuttering and sensitive young teenager, sends his little brother George out into the storm with a paper boat. The boat floats magnificently, until it is sucked into the gutter … and so, sadly, is George.

The filmmakers waste no time in letting us know that evil is lurking in the town. What is impressive here is how Muschietti can show us characters having their arms being bitten off and their faces chewed up one moment and then can move seamlessly into the world of school days.

It’s the summer of 1989 and the kids are preparing for vacation. Derry high school has its share of jocks, bullies and nerds. Bill falls into the latter category, as does Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the red-haired, rebellious teenager who bears more than a passing resemblance to Eighties star Molly Ringwald, and who is relentlessly teased by the girls in her class.

IT Trailer 2

All the characters here have to confront the usual growing pains that come with puberty and the loss of innocence. The grotesque clown Pennywise (played with manic grinning energy by Bill Skarsgård) is a manifestation of their innermost fears and phobias. He knows as much himself. When the kids try to reassure themselves that he only appears when they are frightened, he taunts them all the more.

“It’s summer. We are supposed to be having fun,” one of Bill’s group of “loser” friends complains as the terror level rises.

Muschietti includes some wonderfully expressionistic and grotesque set-pieces involving the clown. One of the most memorable comes after Beverly cuts off her long locks of red hair and washes them down the sink. She later hears a gurgling and voices from the plughole and uses a tape measure to prod around. Moments later, the blood begins to spurt and the room turns as red as a morgue.

Sewers are used more inventively here than in any film arguably since Harry Lime was on the run like a rat at the end of The Third Man. Diabolic forces lurk next to the discarded shoes, tampons and toys in the sewage system.

At the same time that the kids are battling evil in the abstract (as represented by the clown), they’re also having to deal with the older school bullies, who are sadistic and near-psychopathic. The teenagers may not be able to compete with them physically, but they can out-spar them verbally. “Go blow your dad, you mullet-wearing asshole,” is one of the more memorable insults that Bill’s motormouthed friend Richie (Finn Wolfhard) throws at one of them.

The filmmakers aren’t just able to draw on Stephen King’s back catalogue. They have a whole history of horror to borrow from. There are nods here in the direction of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. (The missing kid here wears a yellow coat that is as easy to spot as the red macintosh worn by the drowning child in Roeg’s film.)

In its more baroque moments, the film resembles some of Roger Corman’s most lurid Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The scenes of characters coming together to ward off the darkness could come from some Dennis Wheatley story. At the same time, the film feels very American. We are in a world in which popularity is measured by how many friends sign your yearbook or the plaster on your arm if you break a bone.

The film is intended as the first of two features based by on the Stephen King novel. The characters here will come back again as adults and face off against the diabolic clown all over again. Whether or not the sequel can recapture the intensity of the first part remains to be seen.

What makes this film so distinctive and so evocative is youthful innocence of the protagonists in the face of grinning evil. With grown ups, the rules of war will be very different.

The Work (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir: Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous, 89 mins

Mention Folsom Prison and many will think of Johnny Cash’s famous song (“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”) The Work offers a very different perspective on the California State prison. In the documentary, the filmmakers follow civilians taking part in group therapy with the convicts.

These civilians come from a range of backgrounds (there are bar tenders and museum associates among them) and have contrasting motivations for wanting to participate. Most are as unhappy in their lives as the hardened convicts with whom they are about to spend time.

What follows is four days of soul-bearing anguish and exhilaration. The filmmakers shoot fly-on-the-wall style as the civilians and the inmates share deep-rooted fears. Hardened tattoo-covered, muscle-bound prisoners talk about wanting to “be vulnerable” without feeling scared about it. They try to remember their childhoods.

There are moments akin to exorcisms as some give vent to their fury as the group holds them in check. Then, the aggression subsides. Whether they’re ex-members of the Ayran Brotherhood, renegades from the LA gangs, black, Hispanic or white, the prisoners are all equally open and honest. After each day’s sessions, the civilians leave. We then see them being bussed back in the next day.

It’s easy to scoff at the therapy here as New Age quackery. There’s a lot of hand-holding and chest-beating. Some of the inmates give in to extreme self-pity, lamenting their isolation and the fact that they could die behind bars with nobody caring or noticing.

The film, though, is uplifting and very moving. It shows its subjects coming together to help one another. Prisoners form very close bonds with each other and with the civilians. It becomes apparent that the civilians have just as many demons eating away at them as the men behind bars,

An intertitle informs us that in the last 17 years, over 40 convicts, many lifelong criminals, have been released from prison after attending the programme. As viewers, we’re made to feel as if we are participants in the therapy ourselves. The camera gets very close to the subjects.

When they give vent to rage or tears, we see it in huge close up. The Work makes gruelling viewing at times – it’s more like psychotherapy than entertainment – but, by the end, viewers will feel as if they’ve been on the same rewarding journey as the subjects.

Insyriated (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir: Philippe Van Leeuw, 86 mins, starring: Hiam Abbass, Diamand Bou Abboud, Juliette Navis, Mohsen Abbas, Moustapha Al Kar

In Philippe Van Leeuw’s drama Insyriated, the war in Syria is viewed from within a single apartment. We hear the rumble of bombs in the distance. Whenever anyone ventures outdoors, there are snipers waiting.

Against enormous odds, the family matriarch Oum Yazan (Haim Abbas) tries to maintain a semblance of normality. “This is my home and no-one will force me out of it,” is her attitude. By sticking to routines, she hopes to keep the chaos of the outer world at bay.

The children, the mother and their grandfather eat meals together. They take turns to use the bathroom. A young couple whose apartment was destroyed are living with them. They have a baby and planning to leave town for the sake of the child.

Inevitably, Oum finds it harder and harder to keep her home running. There are thugs and rapists on the prowl. Telephones don’t work properly and even getting a reception on the radio is a struggle.

Haim Abbas excels as the extremely strong willed Mother Courage-type, determined to ensure her family’s survival. When someone close to the family is shot outside, she insists on keeping the incident secret. She knows that the victim’s loved ones will try to retrieve the body and thereby put themselves at extreme risk.

Writer-director Van Leeuw (best known previously as a cinematographer) shows no interest at all in the politics behind the conflict. There are no references to the religion or ethnicity of the characters. Instead, Van Leeuw is showing the horror of war as it is experienced by a single family in their own home. As in Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (1968), he is exploring how quickly the veneer of civilisation can be stripped away when people are forced to fight for survival.

There are some very grim scenes here involving two men who invade the home. While the rest of the family hide, a young woman, Halima (Diamand Abou Abboud), shows great courage as the men harass her and sexually assault her.

Others, too, display selflessness and bravery. At the same time, the kids behave like kids. Water is short but that doesn’t stop Oum’s daughters from taking the chance to wash their hair. The grandfather is a distinguished and kindly old man, but the children still get exasperated at the amount of time he spends in the bathroom. His mischievous grandson stick a needle in his backside at one stage.

For all the prowling camera work, the film risks becoming claustrophobic. The entire feature plays out in the same set of rooms. Some of the plotting is on the clunky side. (Characters presumed dead miraculously manage to survive. Snipers suddenly discover a humanitarian side.)

A little more context would surely have helped. We have no idea who is fighting whom or where Oum’s husband has gone, or why all the other neighbours have fled. This means that Insyriated lacks any local identity. It risks becoming just another generalised film about the pity and squalor of war as experienced on the domestic front.

Dennis Skinner: Nature Of The Beat (PG)

★★★☆☆

Dir: Daniel Draper, 106 mins, featuring: Dennis Skinner

The veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner, the so-called “Beast of Bolsover,” emerges as a far more complex and sympathetic figure in this documentary than he appears when he is haranguing Tories and talking class warfare during House of Commons debates.

We learn of his love of nature. He speaks with knowledge and enthusiasm about magnolia plants, camellias and chestnuts. During “boring” debates in the Commons, he admits he’ll bunk off to Richmond Park to enjoy the pastoral scenery.

This love of nature is rooted in his time as a miner. As he puts it, spending 8 hours beneath ground can’t help but make you appreciate the fresh air and great outdoors. He’s a huge fan of Woody Allen movies too, and draws on them sometimes for inspiration when writing speeches.

Skinner’s younger brothers are on hand to offer their commentary on his political career. Time has done nothing to blunt the MP’s visceral dislike of Conservatives or his distrust of political patronage. He talks with pride of how he helped dismantle Ted Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, and of the triumphs of the trade unions in the 1970s.

Then came Thatcher and the 1984 miners’ strike. Skinner knew from the outset that she was a “clever” woman, determined to shift the “balance of power” away from the working class, and his dismay at the betrayal of the miners is still palpable.

Skinner is a tremendous storyteller: a raconteur who has a touch of the music hall performer about him. He’s also not above vanity – we see him crowing about the way he out-manoeuvred Enoch Powell over a stem cell research bill.

Even his opponents grudgingly admire him for his sheer longevity (he has been an MP since 1970), his ability to turn a witty phrase and the consistency and passion with which he has always fought his causes.

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