Two new films at the Sundance Film Festival — a tightly plotted murder mystery and an immersive vérité documentary — ask the same two questions: who has the authority to dispense justice, and with how much violence?
Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River is a suspenseful and dark revenge tale unfolding in the frozen mountains of Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Following the screening at Sundance, Sheridan said that, as a white filmmaker, he felt he did not have the right to make a movie from a Native American point of view. Instead, his protagonists serve and protect the tribal community as outsiders. Their point of view is limited by definition, setting up the film’s many tensions
Wind River opens on a sniper as he’s picking off, one by one, a pack of wolves. From Cory Lambert’s (Jeremy Renner) perspective, he’s protecting a herd of sheep, but the scene’s sense of foreboding extends beyond that simple plot point. A white wildlife expert charged with destroying predators in the area, he proceeds to follow a set of lions’ tracks. But his course is changed when he happens upon the body of an 18-year-old Native girl, frozen in the snow.
Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), we later find out, was a fighter: raped and beaten, she ran for miles in the wintry weather until her lungs burst from the cold and she drowned in her own blood. She was the best friend of Cory’s daughter, who was killed under similar circumstances, and the killer was never caught. This destroyed Cory’s marriage to a Native woman, Wilma (Julia Jones), and made him the brooding avenger the plot needs him to be.
Enter determined rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who arrives from Las Vegas in high heels and a windbreaker, demanding to see the body with an imperiousness familiar from other movies where authorities compete over jurisdictions. In order for the FBI to stay on the case, the coroner must declare Natalie’s death a homicide. He does not. Jane stays anyway. Cory, who is not a law enforcement officer, agrees to help the FBI to find the culprit, while also promising to deliver justice to the girl’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham).
As we might anticipate, Jane and Cory don’t investigate as much as they unexpectedly stir up armed resistance among local residence. When they set off to pursue snowmobile tracks in the snow, Cory tells Jane, “You look for clues, but you need to look for signs.” She heads to an oil rig to find the victim’s white boyfriend but instead inspires a spectacular Mexican Standoff among three tribal policemen with standard-issue handguns, five or six oil rig workers with automatic weapons, and herself, one FBI agent armed with a glock.
In the United States, the movie reminds us, when a Native American woman is raped by a man who is not a member of her tribe, tribal courts cannot prosecute him. Thanks to this procedural loophole, a Native woman is 2.5 times more likely to be a victim of sexual assault and rape than a woman of any other ethnicity. Wind River illustrates such injustices in scenes that range from sensational (that Mexican Standoff) to brutal (a disorienting gunfight), inspiring anger in its viewers.
The Force (2017)
Fully immersed in real life, The Force follows members of the Oakland Police Department on the beat, in class at the Police Academy, at press conferences, crime scenes, and community meetings. Director Peter Nicks and his crew spent three years with the department and takes vérité a step further than Nicks’ previous documentary, The Waiting Room. The Force follows events and presents protagonists’ statements to the media, rather than filmed interviews.
This approach grants the documentary an unexpected immediacy. Some of this stems from the OPD’s well-known troubles, being under federal oversight for 13 years. Famous cases such as the 2009 police killing of unarmed black BART passenger Oscar Grant preceded Ferguson. The Force focuses on the tenure of Sean Whent, Chief of Police from 2013 to 2016, before and during the early Black Lives Matter protests. Whent’s community-friendly policies led to a reduction in police-involved shootings and citizen complaints. His department early on showed police body-camera footage to media (if not the public), but in 2014, it also accidentally deleted 25 percent of its archived footage.
Nicks addressed another aspect of the OPD’s troubles when he spoke to the audience at Sundance, saying he had initially completed filming before the sex scandal erupted in June 2016. At this point, the crew decided to continue working. That decision made for a protracted and, in the end, confusing tale. When, in the final cut, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf alludes to a “systemic culture of macho behavior” as she fires three chiefs in nine days and installs civilian oversight over the department, one wishes filmmakers would abandon their fly-on-the-wall method and do some tough investigative reporting of their own.
That approach, as edited here, makes for a film that is sympathetic to Whent’s efforts. The Force shows that Community Liason Ben McBride screens footage of ’60s-era marches by the Black Panther Party (which was founded in Oakland) in his Procedural Justice class at the Police Academy, not to instruct his students, but instead, to explain the roots of Oakland residents’ distrust of the police. When, at a community meeting, an activist declares, “We do not believe that there are good cops,” what we have seen so far leads us to disagree.
The vérité camera is most effective when this training fails, making clear how tough it is to reform a department where recruits arrive with their prejudices already entrenched. In an especially masterful scene, Procedural Justice students discuss body-camera footage of a cop shooting a black man a dozen times, after he gets out of a car against police orders. The suspect did have something in his hand. Could the officer have fired just once?, the students ask. Could he have avoided firing altogether?
At this point, a medium shot lingers on a black female recruit who, for half a minute, tries to get a word in while her male peers off-screen declare the shooting justified. “It was a knife!”, she says several times. “He was far away. What could he have done with the knife?” She’s cut off by a male voice from off-screen: “He could throw it!” The debate moves on. The woman sits silent, her face twisted in pain for the dead man and for her own inability to break through to her fellow cops.