Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 8; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
You will forget your misery;
you will remember it as waters that have passed away.
And your life will be brighter than the noonday;
its darkness will be like the morning.
Job 16:16-17 (Said by Zophar to the suffering Job.)
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are, for what their hands have done shall be done to them.
Set in the frigid mountains of Wyoming, director Taylor Sheridan’s murder adventure film might remind you of The Revenant. Of course, there is the deadly winter weather that can freeze bare feet in a matter of minutes, but there is also much of the older film’s references to the injustices inflicted by whites upon Native Americans, the action unfolding on a present-day Native American reservation. There Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is the local game tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Ben (Graham Greene) is head of the tribal police force.
The action begins when Cory, out tracking a mountain lion that has killed a steer, comes upon the frozen body of the young girl whom we had seen at the beginning of the film running barefoot across a frozen field.
Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is dispatched to lead the investigation. There is some haggling over jurisdiction and details over how the victim, named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), actually died, but the wound on the girl’s head and the blood around her genitals clearly indicate she was beaten and raped, explaining why she had run away into the cold so far from any settlement. When Jane’s agency refuses to send her any assistance, she feels very much like a fish out of water, and thus she asks Cory to assist her in her investigation. He agrees to be her guide and mentor.
Cory himself, along with his former Native American wife Wilma (Julia Jones), is still grieving over the unsolved murder several years ago of his daughter. This makes him cherish even more his bond with his young son Casey (Teo Briones).
Cory and Jane interview Natalie’s parents Dan and Alice Crowheart (Apesanahkwat and Tantoo Cardinal), but they have no idea as to who might have assaulted her so viciously. Their son hangs out with a derelict gang, one of whom has ties with the tough members of a nearby oil rig gang.
Later, when Cory revisits Dan, we are treated to one of the most tender and insightful scenes in the film. Wanting to help his friend cope with the numbing tragedy, Cory shares his experience of grieving over his own loss of a daughter. He says he learned “bad news and good news” at a grief seminar. He can never be the same after such a tragedy, but once he accepted that, he can still visit his daughter in his mid. “If you don’t live with your pain,” he tells Dan, “you’ll rob yourself of every memory of her. Living with the pain is the only way to keep her with you.”
As Cory and Jane continue their investigation, the tracker comes upon another frozen body out in the snow, this one turning out to be a member of the oil company crew. Soon matters rush toward a violent climax. Through a series of flash-backs we are let in on what happened to Natalie and the male victim on that terrible night, and in the present, a confrontation involving Jane, Ben, and other tribal officers gets way out of hand. Be forewarned that a few violent scenes will be difficult to watch!
Cinematographer Ben Richardson makes the frozen environment an important part of the film, much as it was in The Revenant. When you see the frost-bitten feet of the two victims, you can almost feel the cold. (Having experienced -50 degrees and bitter winds during the winters I spent in North Dakota, this was especially effective for me!) The film is often beautiful, but never sentimental about the beauties of a winter landscape.
For those who like their crime drama’s laced with some social commentary and keen insight into the grieving process, Taylor Sheridan’s film is a real cinematic treat, probably one of the best films of the year. The false, facile advice to forget of Job’s friend Zophar is well countered in the scene of the two grieving fathers. (How often have we heard such sentiments expressed by well-meaning but clueless souls following a funeral service!) Cory is right on with his counsel to Dan. He bears out Jesus’ promise of “blessing” at this point as he seeks to help his friend. Our suffering can be a blessing for others undergoing similar experiences. Hopefully Dan will take his friend’s words to heart, because they come from a man who knows exactly what he is going through.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.