Since my personal lockdown began back in March 2020, MUBI has proved to be my most reliable source of films to watch. I’m still not prepared to go back into cinemas, though I miss the big screen very much. It’s not the cinemas I mistrust but the crowds emboldened by the UK government’s chaotic policy decisions. So I’m staying online for now. I’ve tried many MUBI offerings and decided quite quickly that some aren’t for me, but many are and I’ve experienced many welcome surprises, none more so than Jimmy P., a title that I’d never noticed before and which doesn’t seem to have been released in UK cinemas, though a DVD and VOD version was made available in 2014.
This title is part of a MUBI strand titled ‘Cannes Takeover’, celebrating films from 70 years of Cannes Film Festival screenings. It was shown in competition for the Palme d’Or in 2013. Jimmy P. belongs to that often intriguing group of French films made in English in North America and presenting American stories. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin and based on the book Reality and Dream (1951) by Georges Devereux, it is an intriguing mixture of biopic, ‘buddy movie’, almost procedural study of a form of psychotherapy, and a drama about post-war late 1940s settlement for Native Americans – the ‘present’ is 1948 in Montana. Georges Devereux (1908-85) was an extraordinary figure. Born György Dobó as a Hungarian Jew, he moved to France after the First World War, changing his name and eventually losing any religious affiliation and gaining an education in first sciences and then languages. He could speak four languages as a child and went on to learn both Asian and Native American languages, spending time as an ethnographer and then as a psychiatrist.
Jimmy Picard is a Blackfoot who returns from the war in France to his sister’s farm in Montana but he can’t settle and she eventually gets him admitted to Winter Hospital for Veterans in Topeka, Kansas. The staff, who seem generally concerned to do their best for their patients, struggle to find what is wrong with Jimmy. Apart from some ailments that can be treated he doesn’t seem to be suffering physically and he doesn’t seem to be mentally ill, but he is uncommunicative and clearly not happy. Eventually they send for Devereux who arrives from the East on what seems a tenuous contract but he quickly succeeds in gaining Jimmy’s confidence and together they begin to explore his background and his dreams.
This film received some good reviews – in the US as well as Europe, but general audiences were not drawn to it. As is often the case for European films it failed to fulfil American expectations of an entertainment film. It did OK in France but must have lost money for its producers. There is a lot of ‘talk’ in the film and the narrative refuses to follow the familiar triumphant arc of ‘therapy dramas’. None of this worried me. I was engaged from the start, particularly by the performances. Jimmy is played by Benicio Del Toro. In one sense it is a shame that a Native American actor was not cast in the role but Del Toro is remarkably good in the role. He speaks slowly and sometimes haltingly but with real conviction and intelligence. This is definitely not a typical Hollywood version of a Native American character. Devereux is played by Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric. At first I thought he might be pushing his performance too far into the eccentric presentation of an unconventional scientist. But Amalric holds the line and displays Devereux’s humanity as well as his behavioural quirks. Devereux displays his knowledge of Native American peoples and their languages and customs and Jimmy P responds, impressed that Devereux treats him as an equal but still challenges him with quite difficult questions.
Much of the dialogue between the two men is about Jimmy’s dreams and Desplechin and his cinematographer Stéphane Fontane, with designers Dina Goldman and Justin N. Lang, create dream scenarios or ‘dreamscapes’. Jimmy’s memories also require the presentation of flashbacks to his childhood and his earlier relationships and to his time in France with the US Army. There were occasions when I wasn’t quite sure if a scene was a dream or a flashback, but I don’t think that matters too much. Jimmy P’s life had not been easy and the challenge for the filmmaker is to represent the confusion in Jimmy’s head.
I found this film endlessly surprising and this includes the introduction of Devereux’s lover, an elegant married French woman who manages to find a way to visit him for a few weeks and is welcomed as a guest by the hospital. I wasn’t sure what to expect when she stepped down from the train but I was bowled over to recognise Gina McKee, one of my favourite British actors looking trés chic and sounding authentically French. The girl from Co. Durham has done well and her character certainly energises Amalric’s Devereux, makes him even more amenable and gave me as the audience a real fillip.
What really matters though is what this film tells us about Devereux and his ideas and what it says about Jimmy and Native American cultures and the interaction between the institutions of the American state and the Blackfeet of Montana. Jimmy’s home is the Blackfeet Nation, administered from Browning, Montana and comprising one of the largest ‘reservations’ in the US – one-and-a-half million acres in North West Montana running up to the Canadian border. That border is a colonial boundary since the confederation of Blackfoot tribes extends into Canada. Apart from Jimmy himself, most of the other Native American characters in the film are played by Blackfoot actors or other Native Americans or First Nation peoples – several of the actors are Canadian. The script is subtle in the way it explores institutional racism and ‘casual racism’ encountered by Jimmy. This makes it more telling when, towards the end of his treatment, Jimmy corrects one of the senior staff at the hospital, correcting the doctor who has called him ‘Chief’ and saying: “Sir. My name is Jim. You call me Jim, not Chief”. The representation of what is in practice an Army Psychiatric Hospital is certainly nuanced. The Head of the Hospital, Dr. Manninger (Larry Pine) is the one who brings in Devereux and supports him throughout and clearly is concerned to do the best for Jim. The military doctor who calls Jim ‘Chief’ is the perhaps the only really officious doctor and his nurse is similar. But these are not bad people, they are perhaps just too fond of following procedures and not responding to patients carefully enough. As I’ve indicated, the script doesn’t need to paint the hospital in particularly lurid terms (cf the hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) when it can hint elsewhere in the narrative that the health of the Native American population in the US has always been threatened by the policies of the US government.
I was very impressed by this film and I’d like to show it to people for discussion. The only fault I can find with it is the lack of any geographical considerations. Topeka is a long way from Browning, Montana, nearly 1,000 miles, I think. I wasn’t always sure when characters had physically travelled that distance (by train in 1948), but it would have been a major commitment. But put that aside and everything else worked for me. There is no ‘happy ending’ as such, though the narrative resolves in a way that suggests Jim Pickard is now better equipped to approach his problems and that the hospital has learned something. The ‘real’ Georges Devereux worked at Winter Hospital until 1953 treating other Native Americans and then moved to posts in first Philadelphia and then New York where in 1959 his work was finally formally recognised by The American Psychoanalytic Association. In 1963 Devereux was invited back to France to teach through an initiative by Claude Levi-Strauss. He continued his work until 1981. He must have been a remarkable man.
Delmer Daves was active in Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1960s. He studied law at Stanford and was initially a writer, part-time actor and ‘adviser’, working at MGM and Paramount and then contracted at Warner Bros. He didn’t become a director until 1943 when he was nearing 40. He is perhaps best known for the Westerns he made in the 1950s, the most well-known being Broken Arrow (1950) and 3.10 to Yuma (1957). The Last Wagon was a CinemaScope Western Daves directed for 20th Century Fox as another entry in the cycle of Westerns from the late 1940s/early 1950s which begin to engage with the representation of Native Americans and the racism of most Hollywood narratives, Broken Arrow being one of the first. The Last Wagon has some elements in common with Ford’s The Searchers which was also released in 1956. It is not as profound or as challenging as Ford’s masterpiece but I’m surprised that it hasn’t received more attention. In his Encyclopaedia of Western Movies, Phil Hardy suggests it might be Daves’ best Western, but doesn’t really say much about the film. Julian Petley in The BFI Western Companion (ed. Ed Buscombe) suggests that Daves didn’t get the recognition he deserved in the US, though he was rated by several French critics. In the UK it wasn’t until Michael Walker explored Daves’ Westerns in depth for The Movie Book of the Western (eds Cameron & Pye, Studio Vista 1996) that the film received proper attention. Walker refers to an interview by Christopher Wicking (Screen, July/October 1969) in which Daves says that the wagon train experience was part of his own family history and that after he graduated in 1926 he lived for three months with both Hopi and Navajo communities in Arizona. He also seems to have been a ‘liberal Democrat’ (Wikipedia).
I would classify the film as a ‘liberal Western’, although it is uneven as a narrative, undermining any simplistic notion of a ‘message film’. The opening few minutes are spectacular and tremendously exciting. One man on foot is being hunted by four others on horseback across ravishing landscapes in Northern Arizona around Sedona in 1873. Much of this is in long shot compositions with tiny figures against the landscape by Wilfrid Cline, a Western film specialist, facilitated by the editing of the equally experienced Hugh Fowler and with a score by Lionel Newman. The lone man is ‘Comanche’ Todd, played with customary vigour by Richard Widmark. He manages to kill three of his pursuers but is eventually captured by the fourth who turns out to be Sheriff ‘Bull’ Parker (George Mathews). At this point the script seems to be flawed. Harper wounds Todd in the shoulder and then treats him brutally before a wagon train arrives on the trail led by ex-Colonel Normand, comprising his family and others. They accept Parker and his prisoner, but as a Christian group they are troubled to see Todd chained, almost like a crucifixion on a wagon wheel. The script problems are two-fold. First, Todd’s wound seems to disappear and secondly Harper will go on to state that there is a $1,000 reward for the arrest of Todd, yet his crime involves the killing of Harper’s three brothers which we have just seen happen. We won’t learn the truth about his crimes until the end of the film.
The second section of the narrative sees Harper pitted against the wagon train community because of his ‘inhuman’ treatment of Todd. We learn from Harper that Todd was captured by Comanches as a young boy and grew up as an ‘Indian’. Harper’s stance is clearly racist – to justify his inhuman treatment. During an altercation between Harper and the wagoneers an axe is dropped and Todd picks it up, throws it and kills Harper. As Walker points out, this sequence seems almost like a collective ‘Freudian slip’. It’s as if dropping the axe and pushing Harper close enough for Todd to throw it was unconsciously willed by the group. Later that night a group of young people from the wagon train leave the camp to go skinny-dipping. When they return they find the camp has been attacked by Apache warriors (they are on a notorious trail through Apache territory) and everyone has been killed – except Comanche Todd who, still manacled to a wagon wheel, has miraculously survived when the wagon was pushed over a cliff.
The third section sees the rescue of Todd and the agreement that he will guide them through Apache territory to safety. The small group includes the Colonel’s two daughters, one of whom is white and one bi-racial after his second marriage to a Native American. There is also a younger boy who has become attached to Todd and his older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr). It was this couple who first supported Todd. Finally there are two other older teenagers, one of whom has been against Todd from the beginning. I won’t spoil the narrative from this point but it should be clear that it has taken a different turn. Todd has to convince the group to do things his way – the Comanche way – if they are to survive. This involves some philosophical debates and some explorations of Native American cultures. The aggressive boy displays the most open racism but the white step-sister Valinda is perhaps the most danger to Todd. She resents her own sister as well as contact with Todd. Her step-sister Jolie is played by Susan Kohner who in 1959 would be Oscar-nominated for her role as a young bi-racial woman who ‘passes’ for white in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Kohner’s mother, Lupita Tovar was a Mexican actor who worked for various Hollywood studios on Spanish language versions of English language films. Kohner’s role in The Last Wagon has more/different meanings in retrospect after her success in 1959. This is especially true in relation to a statement Jolie makes in the final sequence of the the film on her changed ideas about her own identity as a bi-racial woman. There were more Mexicans than Native Americans who became stars or leading players in the studio Hollywood era, but they were still discriminated against and subject to forms of racial type-casting.
This third section of the film is the most interesting for me and it is dominated by the idea that Comanche Todd is in effect teaching the youth about Comanche (and Apache) culture and why they need to know about it in order to survive. Widmark is central to the success of the film and his authority as a star actor is just as important as the good sense he speaks in the dialogue. The sequence is quite ‘talky’ for a Western but broken up by the long shot cinematography and bursts of action, each of which is in some way metaphorical in relation to the predicament facing the group.
In the final section, the script (by Daves, James Edward Grant and Gwen Bagni Gielgud) manages to bring the group to safety, once again through an action engineered by Todd. This then leads to a closing section in which Todd is ‘tried’ by General Howard, the historical figure (known as the ‘Christian General’) who also appears in Daves’ film Broken Arrow. Each of the group give their own testimony and even those who have shown racist views are prepared to support Todd. I did find this ‘closure’ to be too sentimental and it is interesting to note that it is the opposite of the closure of The Searchers in which Ethan Edwards is himself unable to rejoin the community, possibly because his own racial hatred is still too strong. I don’t intend to pursue a comparison of the two films here, but I do want to point to the way that both films deal with the ‘war’ waged by white settlers and Union cavalry against Native American peoples by means of a proxy – the bi-racial or bi-cultural characters that come between the two main protagonists. The production context in 1955-6 also suggests films which consciously or not refer to incidents in the Civil Rights struggle such as the furore following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954. What’s interesting also is that The Last Wagon creates a narrative in which a group of ‘juveniles’ is ‘instructed’ by a character who has spent his adolescence learning to be a Comanche. Michael Walker usefully points out that in this period of ‘juvenile delinquency films’, it is often a ‘liberal’ figure who gains the respect of the youth who learn to trust him, e.g. the Glenn Ford character in Blackboard Jungle (1955) or Edward Platt’s juvenile officer in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The same actor, Nick Adams plays one of the gang in Rebel and the most racist character in in The Last Wagon. Todd is not ‘liberal’ but he ‘knows’ both white and Native American culture. The film may well be radical in the ways in which it attempts to ‘recuperate’ Todd’s behaviour and make him eligible to return to white society, while still critiquing it. Michael Walker has much more to say about the ideological underpinnings of the film and his piece is a must-read for anyone interested in Westerns.
The Last Wagon is a ‘journey Western’ which enables a form of ‘conversion’ for its group of travellers and it also includes a romance but most of all it engages with the history of the West even if it doesn’t present us with a Native American actor playing a significant character – the Apache warriors are seen mainly in long shot. Here’s a trailer for the film which is available as a ‘complete movie’ on a well-known streaming site:
Apache was a box office hit in 1954 for the independent production company Hecht-Lancaster releasing through United Artists. Burt Lancaster was perhaps the most successful of the actor-producers who were part of the changing structure of Hollywood during the decline of the studio system in the 1950s. The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, one of the key directors of the period for ‘action pictures’ but here early in his directorial career on just his third feature shot in only 30 days. The story, based on incidents in the life of a historical character, was adapted from Paul I Wellman’s 1936 novel Broncho Apache by James R. Webb, a prolific screenwriter who would later pen John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.
In the early 1950s there was a cycle of films that featured Native American characters and unsurprisingly most of them were Westerns. Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), George Sherman’s Battle at Apache Pass (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise ( 1954) and Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) were just some of the films in the cycle. Historical Native American characters were generally played by white actors. Jeff Chandler plays the Apache chief Cochise in three of the above titles. The casting of Burt Lancaster as another Apache warrior Massai in Apache is therefore conventional for the period.
Many of the films in the cycle refer to the ‘final’ war between the US Cavalry and the Apache nations in the late 1880s in Arizona and New Mexico. Massai was a warrior invited to join Geronimo but he was disarmed around the time Geronimo surrendered. Like Geronimo he was put on a train to go to a prison camp in Florida but escaped and walked back 1200 miles to Arizona. These events are shown in the film, but the remainder of the film narrative is more creative with historical events. Lancaster is in his athletic mode in the film; leaping, rolling, riding and generally outwitting capture. The plot sees him being betrayed by a local chief, the father of a young woman he wants as his bride. Nalinle is played by Jean Peters and eventually she will overcome Massai’s anger about the betrayal (which at first he thinks involves her). Perhaps the crucial sequence in the narrative is when Massai on his long walk back to his home meets a Cherokee man who has ‘become white’, living in his own ranch house and adopting a white life. This man gives Massai the warrior a bag of seed corn and urges him to be a farmer not a warrior. Although Massai at first appears to dismiss the Cherokee man’s ideas, we know that what he has said has more meaning than it might have coming from a white settler or US government agent.
As Massai, Lancaster is athletic, intelligent but stubborn and brutal when he needs to be. The depiction of his treatment of Nalinle is disturbing to watch now but it’s important for the narrative. It’s a great performance and over the next couple of years Lancaster would reach his peak as the athletic and charismatic leading man. He went on to work with Aldrich on Vera Cruz, also released in 1954.
The film does give time to what I would now see as the colonisers of the West, represented here by the US Cavalry, various private ‘agents’ and the important historical figure of Al Sieber, the ‘Indian hunter’ whose job was to find those Apache warriors who became ‘renegades’. Played here by John McIntire is the familiar figure who understands his quarry and will eventually find him and, sometimes reluctantly, deliver him to the coloniser. It’s also worth noting that the film represents the large numbers of Apache who take the US dollar and serve with the Cavalry as scouts and regular soldiers. Charles Bronson makes one of his early credited appearances as the scout Hondo working closely with Sieber.
The ending of the film was forced on Lancaster-Hecht and Aldrich by the distributor United Artist, but what we see in the main part of the narrative has been acknowledged by various film scholars who deem the film one of the strongest of the cycle. I enjoyed the film and it was interesting to see it and to be reminded of more recent films covering aspects of the same story, including Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) with Native-American actor Wes Studi in the lead role. It’s also interesting to see Aldrich and Lancaster working together on their first film and to be reminded of Ulzana’s Raid (1972) one of the most important of the ‘allegorical’ films commenting on the Vietnam War.
Reading some of the many blog entries of Western fans and scholars about this and similar films is a fascinating exercise. Much comment is made about Lancaster as a ‘blue-eyed’ Apache warrior. The eyes are certainly noticeable and like Lancaster’s flashing white teeth, stand out against the heavy make-up. As I’ve noted this casting decision was the convention at the time and we should remember how the film industry followed the racist attitudes of the wider society, but this shouldn’t mean we ignore the film. I noted one comment that suggests that ‘blue-eyed’ Native Americans are not that uncommon and may have been around for several generations. More disturbing for me was the significant number of right-wing commentators who want to dismiss Aldrich and Lancaster as having anything to say about American history. Some do this in a disguised way by simply arguing that this is a poor Western and laying out all its ‘inauthenticities’ – Apache was shot mainly in California with just a few landscapes in Arizona and New Mexico and the story is very much a fictionalised version of the events. I don’t think this distracts from the central purpose of the film which is to show us the final stage of the process of colonialist settlement from the perspective of the colonised, rather than the coloniser. Apache was a popular film and one of the more influential films of the 1950s.
This was the only new film that I saw at the Leeds Film Festival and it goes immediately into my shortlist for films of the year. I selected it solely on the basis of its cinematographer Joshua James Richardson, who had previously shot God Own’s Country (UK 2017), one of my other candidates for best of the year so far. I’m so glad that the cinematography led me to The Rider.
Writer-director Chloé Zhao was born in China, went to ‘high school’ in London and university in the US where she now lives. Her first feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me appeared in 2015, playing in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. It tells the story of a sibling relationship in a Sioux family on the Pine Ridge ‘Reservation’ in South Dakota. The Rider is set on the same reservation, but this film went a step further, picking up the Art Cinema Award after also playing in Cannes.
I went into the film knowing little apart from the cinematography connection and the fact that a rodeo competition was involved. I didn’t really twig the Native American background at first. I’ll admit that the first few minutes were hard-going, but I soon tuned into the film and was engrossed from then on. This is a narrative fiction feature, but it is based on the lives of real people who play characters much like themselves, so it also has distinct elements of documentary. The trio of Jandreau family members play the three members of the Blackburn family. Brady is the older of Tim’s children and he has a younger sister, Lilly. The film opens with Brady getting up in the night to remove the dressing on his head and to ease out the staples that hold it in place. We can see immediately that he has suffered a terrible wound and that his skull has been seriously gashed, requiring staples to hold it together. Brady is not going to be riding ‘bucking broncos’ or bulls for quite a while.
What makes the film so effective for me are three factors. The cinematography is marvellous and the three actors are equally wonderful. But I’m also intrigued by the coming together of different narrative modes which is so well handled by the director. There is a sense of a ‘realist family melodrama’ developed around the three family members. Lilly has what I take to be a mild form of autism (the Press Pack calls it ‘Aspergers’). The dialogue suggests that she is 14 but I’d assumed she was older. Her autism doesn’t prevent her working around the home and she is a loving companion for Brady while father Tim tries to maintain some form of income, even if it requires selling assets. The film is also a documentary drama about the life of a horse trainer/rodeo performer, with Brady soon returning to demonstrate how he can calm a wild horse and train it to accept a rider. I enjoyed these sequences very much, but I think the film finally won me over completely when I realised that it is also a Western (and the combination of Western + melodrama is an absolute winner for me).
One of my all-time favourite films is Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (US 1972), in my book Peckinpah’s best film – a family melodrama built around the rodeo circuit with Robert Preston and Ida Lupino as Steve McQueen’s estranged parents and Joe Don Baker as his entrepreneurial younger brother. The Western melodrama is often built around the father-son relationship. The female character(s) are usually the calm centres around whom the males thrash about trying to resolve macho power struggles. The rodeo life is hard and unforgiving. If you survive those few seconds on a bull or a wild horse, you can be a hero. But you can just as easily be crushed by the weight of the animal, gored by a horn or trampled on. Brady loves his sister and his horses – and his dad. But he needs to make sense of his upbringing which has stressed the manly virtues of being tough. Getting back on the horse in his current predicament of being too physically vulnerable to ride competitively is very tough. At one point he goes to visit a friend and former champ who is still a young man, but who now lives in a care home because he is so severely disabled by his injuries. But what else can Brady do that will restore his self-confidence?
What is so refreshing in the film is the sense of community. When Brady needs to get a job, he meets an employment agent who knew his late mother from her high school days (and Brady visits his mother’s grave on a rise, just like a character in a Ford Western). The narrative doesn’t focus on the Native American community as such. Feeding the gambling machines in the bar does seem to be an issue but it isn’t pushed too much. Mostly, this is a small community where people seem to get on. At one point a couple of kids approach Brady when he is working in the local supermarket. For a moment I feared they were going to photograph him in order to humiliate him, but instead they just want a selfie with a celebrity. The filmed helped me to forget Trump for a moment and restored some sense of hope for working people in the US.
One of the attractions for audiences of Westerns has always been the landscapes and Richardson shoots these beautifully in ‘Scope at what is often termed the ‘magic hour’. I must have watched hundreds of Westerns but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the actual physical movement of either horse or rider in an abstract sense before. By this, I mean that because the Western narrative drive is so strong and I’ve never ridden a horse, I’ve never thought before about the beauty of cowboy and horse together. In Richardson’s images under Zhao’s direction, I could see the horse’s muscles working and appreciate the riding skills.
The film has been bought by Sony Classics. The last Sony Classics film that I enjoyed, Maudie, got a fairly restricted release in the UK and deserved much more, so, please, UK exhibitors and Sony, get this onto as many screens as possible. There is a press release on the site of one of my favourite distributors, Mongrel Media in Canada.
Here’s a clip from the film of Brady with Apollo:
I think I must be in the prime target audience for Wind River. It certainly ‘works’ for me but I’m a little wary of certain aspects of the narrative – so, a good film to write about? The film’s pedigree is good as written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, whose earlier writing on Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016) was certainly appreciated in these parts. It also has a strong cast, music by Nick Cave and a snowy landscape (Utah masquerading as Wyoming). It also has antecedents. The idea of a murder investigation on Native American lands was explored in Thunderheart (US 1992), directed by Michael Apted and including in its cast Graham Greene (Canadian First Nations actor) who repeats his role as a tribal police officer in this new film. Jurisdiction on land designated for Native American tribes is a complex business and that becomes one aspect of this story alongside the familiar issue of indigenous peoples and how they suffer through poor education, lack of employment opportunities and loss of cultural identity. A third element that features strongly is the potential ecological/environmental damage to the land via oil exploration and wildlife issues.
The narrative sees an 18 year-old young woman dying as she runs barefoot through the snow on a winter’s night. The explanation of how cold bursts the blood vessels in the lungs and causes the victim to drown in their own freezing blood is a lesson I won’t forget. But what has caused her to do such a thing? She’s found by Cory Lambert, a wildlife ranger played by Jeremy Renner. The local tribal police chief who is, coincidentally, Cory’s father-in-law, does not have the manpower or authority to conduct a murder investigation, so the FBI, who have jurisdiction on tribal lands via the Department for Indian Affairs, is called in. When she arrives, agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) from Fort Lauderdale via Las Vegas is certainly unprepared for what she is expected to do.
What follows seems like a carefully calculated attempt to cover the bases and confront the issues. The choice of Agent Banner by the FBI seems not to be thought through – not because she’s a woman, but because she’s relatively young, doesn’t know this kind of territory and its culture and is poorly equipped for outdoor work in freezing temperatures. But the decision does open up several narrative opportunities. She can easily offend people, not through malice but through lack of specific experience and knowledge and she needs to rely on the help of wildlife ranger Lambert. Lambert knows the territory, the snow hazards and the people – and he’s closely connected to the victim’s family. He married into the community and his backstory is skilfully woven into the narrative. But he is a white man whose status still raises questions. Against that, one of the most affecting scenes sees Lambert and the dead girl’s father Martin (played by Gil Birmingham from Hell or High Water) in one of those almost silent intimate male relationships found in the best Westerns.
I was struck by how much the narrative reminded me of Indigenous Australian films and I’m sure there are Canadian narratives that cover similar issues. The policing of these communities is problematic. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but I did find the long final sequence (or rather the penultimate sequence) slightly disappointing in the way the murder mystery was ‘solved’. All the performances by the leads were good, though the heavily typed secondary characters were just too predictable in their behaviour. Andy Willis at HOME in Manchester told me he thought Renner’s role was Nietzschian with its emphasis on survival and the kill or be killed philosophy. I can see this and I was also concerned by the presumably legal killings of predators that Lambert is required to carry out as a ranger. (Wolves are being re-introduced in many parts of Europe but Lambert is sent out to dispatch the wolves on Wind River reservation for killing a steer.) The narrative also seemed to suggest connections (direct or metaphorical) between the animal predators that Lambert shoots and the humans who pose a threat to Agent Banner. I’m still trying to figure out what worries me about this but I guess it’s that everyone in the territory seems to have guns (and often high-powered automatic rifles) and the assumption that a wildlife ranger (or a police officer) can use a gun with so little obvious regulation or restraint. Having said that, the UK government sanctions killing badgers when scientific opinion says it achieves nothing.
Is it a Western? I think so, yes. It’s a ‘contemporary Western’ but I’m not sure it is a ‘twilight Western’ since it has a very different kind of narrative structure and set of characters. In some ways it is quite a traditional Western story as oilmen from Texas arrive on Native American land in Wyoming – and a loner, the hunter, has to deal with them. The revisionist twist is to add the female FBI agent.
Wind River has been widely praised and in the UK it has been a surprising success on a limited release. It is distributed here by STX Entertainment, a new name in cinema for me but I see that in North America it has been active in cinema and TV distribution for a few years. It has significant Chinese investment and is targeting growth in East Asian markets. In the UK and Ireland, Wind River is one of its first releases and the release pattern seems to have been idiosyncratic – in some chain multiplexes, but not others. Even so the film reached the Top 5 in midweek, suggesting a skew towards older audiences. It’s worth keeping an eye on STX I think.
This was a riveting movie to watch, well-written and directed by Courtney Hunt (a first time feature filmmaker at 44). I found it also to be disturbing in several different ways.
Frozen River is a genuinely independent film made for less than a million dollars (raised from business acquaintances). Developed from an earlier short film, it was sold to Sony Classics before Sundance – where it won a major prize. The central character is Ray (Melissa Leo), a working-class woman living with her 5 and 15 year-old sons in a decrepit trailer. Her husband, a compulsive gambler, has just absconded with the money saved up for an upgrade to a superior home. Ray sets off to find him between shifts at the local discount store. The trail leads to a Bingo Hall on the Mohawk territory that spans the US-Canadian border. When she sees her husband’s car being driven away by a young Mohawk woman, she gives chase. The upshot is that Ray is sucked into the ‘people trafficking’ across the border which has replaced cigarette smuggling as an earner for some members of the Mohawk community.
As well as gambling and people trafficking, the narrative takes on issues of parental control and the deprivations of trailer park life. It certainly isn’t Hollywood, but still there is a kind of happy ending. In a way this was a relief after a couple of harrowing incidents in the story when I could hardly bear to look at the screen since tragedy seemed inevitable. I’m still trying to work out if this was a cop-out or whether I have read aspects of the film wrongly. As we’ve noted in other posts, it is rare to get contemporary American films that deal with working-class life. It’s even rarer to get films like this written and directed by a woman and with a central focus on two women from outside the norm of Hollywood leads. There has been lots of (justifiable) praise for Melissa Leo, but I would want to also praise Misty Upham as the Mohawk woman. I’m very supportive of the film in lots of ways, but . . .
The problem I have with the film and especially with the happy ending is really to do with the politics of American working class culture. I confess that as a middle-class European it’s sometimes hard to fathom. Let’s begin with the central family in the film. There is some interesting discussion on IMDB as to whether this is a middle-class family brought down in the world by the husband’s gambling. There is generally a view that a ‘poor’ family shouldn’t be watching a large rented TV and eating junk food. Against this, Ray is shown to be a mother who wants her children to go to school and do well (i.e. she isn’t ‘irresponsible’). I wasn’t sure about the actors (real cousins) who played the two sons – they seemed very articulate and ‘well-educated’. So, am I falling into a trap in expecting a stereotypical portrayal of kids who live in a trailer park? To be fair, the film offers believable, non-stereotypical police officers and other characters, so perhaps I ought to read the children as they are written. I can’t say too much about my major concern with the film without giving away the plot, so, SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.
Ray is driven by the need to find the money for the new house – in the couple of days before Christmas Eve. Driving illegal workers over the frozen river and across Mohawk land evades the immigration controls. She’s seemingly unconcerned by the Chinese in her boot (trunk) but freaks out when a Pakistani couple turn up, yelling that she doesn’t know what a ‘Paki’ is (the term used by the Mohawk woman) and then saying that she doesn’t know where Pakistan is and losing it completely because the couple might be carrying bombs or something. Is this what American working mothers are like? A woman who seems rational at other times can’t distinguish between frightened illegal immigrants and an Al Quaeda cell? Or is this just my false perspective?
Following this, Ray acts quite callously and only seems to care about her kids’ Christmas presents. Not so terrible perhaps, but we now have her classed as suspicious of other cultures – which goes against the believable portrayal of the two women, white and Native American who are slowly drawing together after beginning on a level of mutual animosity. Lila, the Mohawk woman is an interesting character, streetwise but not as assertive as Ray at first. She also has a small child who she has ‘lost’ to her mother-in-law after her husband’s death. In a possibly metaphorical move, she eventually buys some glasses to improve her poor short-range vision. The ending of the film sees Ray make a sacrifice which effectively ‘saves’ Lila and her child. It was this volte-face by the woman who could treat illegals as terrorists that I found a bit hard to take. I’m mindful of Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts in which Chinese illegals drown in Morecambe Bay when their gangmaster allows them to work in unsafe conditions. People smuggling is often a dangerous business that ends in tears – see our discussion of Farewell China. The film seems to focus on the white-Native American relationship, but to ignore the illegals who somehow seem less than human (they have no dialogue as such). I’m interested to hear what Americans think about this aspect of the film – and Canadians, who are also ‘absent’ apart from the Quebecois who organises the smuggling. Wouldn’t all these illegals be better off taking their chance in Canada?
It’s great that Melissa Leo should get all this attention. I’ve been a fan since Homicide – Life on the Street. In this movie she looks like a real person and not a movie star. Writer-director Hunt is adamant about her commitment to showing a working-class woman on screen. According to an interview in New York magazine, Hunt herself was brought up by a single mother and took her early inspiration from Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
I hope the film does well – and creates discussion about race and class in contemporary America.