Willie Lincoln was only 11 when he died in February 1862 of typhoid fever. The Lincolns' third son was said to be their favorite, and after Willie was interred in a borrowed mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, his father, Abraham Lincoln, returned to that cemetery several times. Newspapers reported that the president visited the crypt to open his son's coffin and hold his body.
It's that image, of Lincoln cradling the corpse of his beloved son in a Pietà pose, that inspires George Saunders' first novel, called Lincoln in the Bardo. Though it's early to say, I feel pretty safe in predicting that this is going to be one of the year's most acclaimed novels.
Lincoln in the Bardo is searing, inventive and bizarre. This is Saunders, after all, whose imagination effortlessly mashes together the hell-fire visions of Hieronymus Bosch with crude Middle-School anatomical humor and the deadpan surrealism of Rod Serling.
There's always method to Saunders' madness, and here it forces readers to realize, as if for the first time, the ultimate oddness of our own existence; namely, that there's an end to it; that we and everyone we love are going to die.
The action of Lincoln in the Bardo is mostly confined within the iron gates of Oak Hill Cemetery (which still exists, by the way.) A voice, identified as one "hans vollman" opens the novel with a reminiscence: "On our wedding day," [hans tells us] I was forty-six, she was eighteen." Another voice, that of one elise traynor soon announces, "I was too early departed."
Saunders' chatty dead are stuck in what Tibbetan Buddhists call "the bardo" — a limbo-like state where the fears and desires they harbored when they were alive are magnified.
Saunders goes on to amplify this central idea of being stuck: the newly interred Willie is trapped in the bardo by his yearning to keep seeing his father, during those heartbreaking pilgrimages Lincoln pays to the crypt; Lincoln himself is stranded in grief; and, of course, the nation finds itself stalled in a transitional state, mired in the blood and gore of the Civil War. The impossibility and, yet, the dire necessity of moving on are the opposing forces that wrestle with each other in this profound novel.
If this overview makes Lincoln in the Bardo seem too static, too reminiscent of that sluggish classic Spoon River Anthology, be assured that the wild plot swerves of Saunders' short stories have been transplanted and multiplied in his debut novel: Old Testament angels (who may be demons in disguise) pay the cemetery dwellers an apocalyptic visit; the ghosts of slaves rise up from their segregated "sick boxes" (as the dead call their coffins) just outside the iron gates and integrate the lily-white Oak Hill Cemetery; and in a moving climactic scene, the legions of the dead swarm the unknowing Lincoln when he visits Willie.
Saunders' speaks in a hundred tongues here, concocting words like "skim walking" to describe the peculiar way the dead navigate the cemetery and taking us deep into Lincoln's grief. Here are some of Lincoln's staccato thoughts, as he sits in that mausoleum, holding Willie and grappling with his death and the mounting deaths of the Civil War:
He is just one.And the weight of it about to kill me.Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. ... A mountain. Of boys. Someone's boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it.
One thing bothers me about this extraordinary novel — more of a question, really, than a quibble. Throughout Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders intersperses chapters packed with quotes from historical sources. He gives citations for these historical sources and some are legit — like Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Lincoln, for instance. But other sources are made up. All the historical passages are tossed together indiscriminately.
It's not like Saunders is doing anything new here: novelists have been playing with historical narrative since the term "postmodern" was invented. But, I wonder if just in the past couple of months, our taste and tolerance for this kind of melding of fact and fiction has diminished? Like I say, it's a question. What's not a question is the achievement of Lincoln in the Bardo. Like the president who graces its pages, it's monumental.
Even after he wrote the screenplay for Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 drug-wars thriller Sicario, most people knew Taylor Sheridan only as an actor, particularly for his recurring role on TV’s Sons of Anarchy. More people took notice when his screenplay for David Mackenzie’s extraordinary 2016 heartland financial-crisis drama Hell or High Water was nominated for an Oscar in 2016. Before that, Sheridan had directed one feature, the 2011 horror thriller Vile. (Raise your hand if you’ve seen it. I haven’t.)
That means the picture Sheridan has brought to the “Un Certain Regard” program here in Cannes, Wind River, isn’t a debut. But it’s definitely an arrival. Wind River is what we used to call, and not always pejoratively, a conventional film, a crime procedural that tells a solid story, with well-defined characters, and perhaps opens us up to a world we didn’t previously know much about. TV series now often fill this role, but there’s something to be said for a well-crafted motion picture, cinematically astute, that demands that we sit down and pay attention for a solid two hours or so, with no intermittent fridge runs.
Wind River, which Sheridan both wrote and directed, is that kind of picture. Jeremy Renner is Cory, an employee of Wyoming Fish and Wildlife—his job is to kill the animals who prey on local livestock, and his jurisdiction includes a Native American Reservation that seems to have been forgotten by the world, though by the movie’s end, the qualifier “seems to have been” will be unnecessary.
Cory has a young son (Teo Briones) and is icily estranged from his wife (Julia Jones). The couple’s difficulties are explained, in bracketed spaces of subtle crosshatching, as the story moves forward. Cory is an ace marksman, always getting his kill because he knows how his prey thinks, to the point of sympathizing with it: Dressed in snow-colored camouflage gear, he’s so one with nature, he’s anonymous in it.
Cory’s skills are put to a new use when the body of a young woman from the reservation is found far from her home. Something terrible has happened to her—there’s evidence of rape—and she clearly walked a long way, barefoot, through the snow. A young FBI agent, Elisabeth Olsen’s Jane, comes all the way from Las Vegas to investigate—she’s the only agent free to trek to this remote location, and so she comes alone. (As unrealistic as that is, let’s go with it, for the story’s sake.) She knows she’s in over her head, less a sign of weakness than a signal of strength. She asks Cory to help her unravel this woman’s story.
What follows is a picture of another America, one that isn’t defined by red or blue, or divided into groups according to who voted for whom and why. But it does show us, in threads deftly woven, how circumstances can push hard against people, making everyday living a battle. Wind River is a modern western, and one of very few forays into the genre that’s set in snow country. (William Wellman’s 1954 Track of the Cat is a fine example, if you’re looking for one.) The world of snow can be as desolate as the desert is, and its solitude—both soothing and ice-deadly—makes it a great setting for a western drama. Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson use that landscape beautifully in a story that reaches out in several directions—it’s about, among other things, communities of forgotten people, the intricacies of gender dynamics and the ways in which violence against women can be insidiously veiled. The story comes to rest in a way that’s both somber and gratifying.
Sheridan knows what he’s doing, and if he keeps making pictures that mean something to him—as opposed to solely taking the big Hollywood jobs that filmmakers tend to accept once they’ve arrived—who knows what he’ll be able to accomplish? He’s wonderful with actors, perhaps because he’s a longtime actor himself. That kinship can backfire, though that hardly seems to be the case here. The always-terrific Graham Greene appears as the reservation sheriff, and Gil Birmingham, the wonderful actor who played Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water, is superb as Martin, the father of the deceased woman. Olsen has a serene, baby-faced gravity about her, but when Jane steps forward and takes action, we see there’s steel there, too. Renner, with that great Popeye face, is terrific. His Cory is a man who once knew his place in the order of things but seems to have lost it. To watch him track his way back is a prickly-tender pleasure.