Tag Archives: Gil Birmingham

God Save the Queen

The Marsh King’s Daughter

by Hope Madden

From its opening moments, Neil Burger’s The Marsh King’s Daughter establishes a meditative, even spooky mood. And though tensions rise fairly steadily over the following 108 minutes, he never entirely loses that atmosphere.

It’s a mood that suits a film about a young woman (Daisy Ridley) brought up in the most remote part of Michigan’s upper peninsula. Her father (Ben Mendelsohn) raises her to track, hunt, and recognize her place in the natural world.

Young Helena (played in youth by Brooklynn Prince, solid as ever) disapproves of her mother’s dour ways and prefers the company of her doting if strict father. This is why she’s so unhappy to be separated from him when her mother – who’d been kidnapped years earlier and forced to live in isolation – is finally rescued, and takes Helena with her to freedom.

And though Act 2 devolves into a fairly predictable if well shot and well-acted thriller, the effort put into the first act establishes Helena’s central conflict. She loved her dad more than anything in the world and he loved her back, in his way. His way was deeply, criminally wrong. But with Mendelsohn in the driver’s seat, the villainy is more than subtle and sinister enough to amplify an often-missed opportunity. We know why Helena loves and misses her father, regardless of the monster she logically realizes he is.

Mendelsohn is masterful, as is routinely the case. He brings an unnerving calm, a low key but committed sense that his way is the right way, the only way. His quietly impatient performance matches the films slow but deepening sense of unease.

Ridley – wiry, alert but never showy – convinces. Helena is what’s left of the kid whose idyllic childhood turned out to be more nightmare than dream.

None of the other characters have enough richness to feel like more than vehicles for the father/daughter story. Garrett Hedlund is particularly hamstrung by the underwritten “supportive spouse” role, and Gil Birmingham feels especially manhandled as the tragedy waiting to happen.

The most disappointing aspect of The Marsh King’s Daughter is the way the second act bends to predictability. But Burger remembers the strength of his opening when father and daughter return to the woods in the last third, and it’s worth the wait.

Vanishing America

Wind River

by Hope Madden

In many beautiful and horrific ways, the scripts of Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) felt like a reemergence of Cormac McCarthy.

His lean and often quite mean stories have been blessed with two of the more capable visionaries of modern film (David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve) – filmmakers whose camerawork, pacing and sense of urgency hauntingly animated the damaged Americana Sheridan’s stories announced.

With his latest, Wind River, Sheridan takes the helm, borrowing inspiration from both directors.

Another tale of violence, bureaucratic vagueries and the vanishing of American heritage, Wind River certainly feels like a Taylor Sheridan film.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, sharp shooter for Wyoming’s department of fish and wildlife. He protects livestock from predators – like the three wolves surrounding a flock of sheep in the scene that immediately follows that of a young girl bleeding and dying alone in a frozen wasteland.

Behind the camera, Sheridan is a bit less subtle with symbolism than he might want to be. In fact, though Wind River spins a compelling murder mystery, it’s far more of a blunt instrument than the filmmaker’s last two – admittedly magnificent – efforts as writer.

Perhaps Sicario and Hell or High Water represent too high a bar for a director with only one feature, the 2011 horror flick Vile, under his belt.

Performances are wonderful. Renner’s stoic cowboy unveils genuine tenderness, Gil Birmingham’s brief screen time is a blistering blessing of tumultuous emotion, and Elizabeth Olsen breathes life into a surprisingly one-note role.

Sheridan doesn’t have quite the touch of Villeneuve or Mackenzie, and without it, his material feels a touch too preachy, a whisper too self-righteous, and most troublingly, too white.

Set on a Native American reservation, Lambert is enlisted to help Olsen’s fledgling FBI agent Jane Banner and an understaffed tribal police department solve the crime behind the girl’s death.

And though Renner brings his grieving hunter to the screen with an aching, restrained performance, it’s hard to understand why the character needed to be white. That piece of casting gives the film a “white savior” tenor that only exacerbates that nagging feeling of misplaced self-righteousness.

Wind River is a fine, if flawed, police procedural. Unfortunately, that makes it a bit of a disappointment coming from Sheridan.