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Jeremy Renner shoots and misses in a directorial debut from the writer of Sicario

Wind River (Photo: Sundance)
Wind River (Photo: Sundance)

Sundance isn’t going quite as smoothly as it usually does. That’s okay. The world isn’t going too smoothly right now either. Yesterday, on the first Saturday of the festival (usually a very well-attended day), the shuttle service everyone uses to get from venue to venue sputtered to a crawl. That’s okay, too, because it was for a good reason: Thousands of people flooded Main Street, epicenter of Park City’s nightlife, to participate in what now’s being reported as the largest protest—counting all cities that marched—in United States history. How could any of us cloistered Sundancers complain about not getting from one warm auditorium to another in a timely fashion? The country had taken to the streets in peaceful opposition, and here we were, scrolling past photographic highlights of the marches between punchy tweets about the day’s movies.

For the festival’s organizers, the hiccups didn’t stop with a little gridlock. Sundance was also the victim yesterday of a cyberattack that crashed its servers, putting the box office offline for a few hours. (Retribution from the powers that be for programming a mediocre Al Gore documentary with digs at the new administration? We may never know!) And I caught word of a screening of the midnight competition title Berlin Syndrome where the DCP crapped out right at the climax, forcing star Teresa Palmer to take the stage and literally tell those in attendance what happened at the end. As insignificant #SundanceProblems go, that’s a pretty big one.

But what of the movies? Three days into the festival, the consensus seems to be that nothing truly revelatory has yet premiered. The U.S. Dramatic competition has been especially light on buzz this year, with nothing inspiring that magic mixture of audience and critic appreciation that marks an eventual jury prizewinner. (The Big Sick, which I wrote about yesterday, would apply if it were in competition, instead of slotted into the higher-profile, noncompetitive Premieres lineup. Likewise another film I address below.) Admittedly, it’s still relatively early—neither The Birth Of A Nation nor Me And Earl And The Dying Girl popped up before the end of the first weekend in their respective years. But the search for the fest’s likely winner—the big breakout—is still ongoing.

The Yellow Birds (Photo: Sundance)

It almost certainly won’t be The Yellow Birds (Grade: C), a broody variation on every war-critical war movie to hit screens since the first wave of Vietnam polemics. In fact, for a while, the film prepares its audience for a kind of modern, nonlinear Full Metal Jacket, opening with a shot suspiciously similar to the one that closed Kubrick’s harrowing combat classic, then dancing back and forth between the basic training and the Iraq deployment of fresh-faced privates Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Murphy (Tye Sheridan). But the chronology mostly flattens out once the homecoming portion of the story kicks in, the focus shifting to the mystery of a soldier’s disappearance, the wave of guilt that follows another one back to the States, and the anguish of a mother (Jennifer Aniston) looking for answers.

Handsomely shot by Under The Skin cinematographer Daniel Landin, who doesn’t skimp on the striking imagery (flaming foliage, a grunt wading through murky water), The Yellow Birds can’t quite disguise its hollow familiarity. Though based on a very loosely autobiographical novel by veteran Kevin Powers, the film seems chiefly informed by other movies; the generic combat scenes are staged with the same shaky handheld “urgency” as every other Iraq War picture, while the characters have no psychology beyond the usual innocence-lost arc. (What a waste of Hail, Caesar!’s scene-stealing cowboy, a.k.a our future Han Solo.) Director Alexandre Moors (Blue Caprice) delays the resolution of the central mystery until the final minutes, but by then, the audience will have gotten the war-is-still-hell message loud and clear—especially if they’ve seen any other film like this over the last 40 years. That The Yellow Birds was co-written by Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery is perplexing, especially given the singularity of his other Sundance ’17 movie, A Ghost Story, which I’ll write about tomorrow. (Short preview: Wow.)

Mudbound (Photo: Sundance)

The Yellow Birds ultimately says less about war in nearly two hours than the film I saw immediately after it does almost secondarily; though Mudbound (Grade: B+) is set against the backdrop of World War II, the war itself—and what it did to the young men who fought in it—is just one strand woven into this years-spanning American epic, adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 bestseller about enduring racial injustice in 1940s Mississippi. For director Dee Rees, who launched her career at Sundance four years ago with Pariah and co-wrote this new effort with Virgil Williams, Mudbound is an enormous leap forward in ambition, craft, and scope: a sophomore swing for the fences, apparently lavish enough in budget (reportedly $20 million, which Rees really makes count) or at least production values to be excluded from the U.S. Dramatic competition. Had it been included, it’d be hard to imagine a different film winning.

The film helixes the struggles of two families, one white and the other black. Chasing big agricultural dreams, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) relocates his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), bigoted father (Jonathan Banks), and two young children to a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The land is being worked by the sharecropping Jacksons, Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige), raising their own family on the farm and struggling to adjust to the demands of their new employer. Both families have contributed young men to the war: the Jacksons’ eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), and Henry’s shiftless, cocksure ladykiller of a brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, finally harnessing that swagger for a real performance). As the years tick by, the tension between the McAllans and the Jacksons exacerbates, even as their hard-living circumstances align.

At times, Mudbound buckles a little under its ambition: Even at close to two-and-a-half hours, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and characters sometimes disappear for long stretches, some individual arcs waylaid by others. (Mulligan’s Laura, for example, starts out looking like the heroine, but ends up playing a less significant role in the backstretch.) What excites me about the film isn’t so much its fatalistic story, which builds inexorably to a last act upsetting enough to send some viewers at the premiere screening racing for the exits, as the way Rees tells it. Replicating the divided perspective of the novel, Mudbound employs multiple narrators, decentering the drama to create a spectrum of POVs. It’s a strategy that underlines the film’s vision of a divided America, while also lending a sprawling, prestige literary adaptation an interiority, a poetic touch. That’s no small feat.

Pariah didn’t make much of an impression on me a few years ago, which makes Mudbound’s hefty power a pleasant surprise. By contrast, I’m disappointed to report that my anticipated movie of the festival, Wind River (Grade: B-), didn’t live up to my (perhaps unfairly inflated) expectations. It’s the third film written and the first one directed by Taylor Sheridan, who penned Sicario and Hell Or High Water. Having done flavorful, crackerjack wonders in the American Southwest, the former Sons Of Anarchy actor heads north to Wyoming for his directorial debut, a snowbound noir starring Jeremy Renner as a government game hunter teaming up with a green FBI agent (fellow Avenger Elizabeth Olsen) to solve the rape and murder of a young woman on the local Native American reservation.

Sheridan’s gift for popping, antagonistic dialogue pays big dividends in the film’s best scenes—many involving frustrations of law-enforcement protocol—and it’s hard to write off the Elmore Leonard-ish economy of the plotting. But without the muscular direction of Denis Villeneuve or David Mackenzie (Sheridan just isn’t there yet), Wind River’s flaws shift into sharper relief. This is a much more maudlin script than the others the filmmaker has written, devoting one too many pages to the troubled backstory of its protagonist and his frequent speeches about survival and coping—a burden that Renner can’t entirely shoulder. I have other issues with the movie, but I’ll save those for the inevitable full review, should the famously unreliable Weinsteins release it any time soon. At Sundance, it’s not always the films you’re most excited for that make the biggest impression—a lesson I’ll reiterate tomorrow, when I cover the two best films I’ve seen in Park City this year. I didn’t expect to love them either.