After two hits, screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, has carved an interesting niche for himself. His films are often examinations of macho archetypes within seemingly simple and unapologetically pulpy genre exercises, all while dealing with issues in ways that haven’t been explored, but never concerning itself with being a “message movie.” Sicario (which I’m still rather unimpressed with, but whatever) is about the futility of the drug war, and Hell or High Water is about the fallout of the recent housing and mortgage crisis. Now, Sheridan is in director’s chair with his debut (although, he is credited for directing some 2011 horror movie no one’s heard of called Vile, but whatever), Wind River.
The film follows a wildlife service agent, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who stumbles onto the body of a woman out in the Wind River Indian Reservation, which prompts local law enforcement to call in the FBI, who send in Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to investigate. And since she is not knowledgeable of the area and its people, she employs the help of Cory in tracking down the people responsible.
A lot of those Sheridan ticks that I mentioned before are found here as well. Here we are given the sort of damaged loner that we see a lot within Cory, but we also get to see him vulnerable and we get to understand his personal connection to the case, as it turns out, he also lost a daughter some time prior. We get a good sense of what’s left of his family life, and these moments gives us time to ground the story on a more intimate level before things get kind of crazy. And crazy they do get, as they mystery begins to unfold in ways that are unexpected, but never out of left field. It’s a smartly paced procedural, and it does a good job at keeping a sense of intrigue, and when to set the action, but never losing sight of character in the process.
Another thing that Sheridan has done well with his previous efforts, is providing a sense of place, which he excels at here. You feel the chill of the snow, the desolation in the environment, and the kind of effect that could have on the people who live within it. I like that we get to see multiple Native Americans on screen played with a sense of authenticity by Native American actors (such as Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones, Martin Sensmeier, Apesanahkwat, and Tantoo Cardinal) each of whom get to make an immediate impression, and be a reasonably well rounded character devoid of any toxic stereotypes, even if they aren’t ultimately the focus (which is way more than I can say about another film that I reviewed recently). I suppose that could be a criticism, but that might not be in my place to say. I do feel that the authenticity and honesty about the plight of Native American communities gives the film a certain legitimacy that most other filmmakers wouldn’t have even bothered with. Sheridan has a way of being able to inject some soul and humanity even in the bleakest environment, and that gives us something to grasp onto on an emotional level.
The film is a bit rough around the edges, as many directorial debuts tend to be, but never in a way that takes you out of it. Sheridan’s grasp in visual language is strong, and he allows for scenes to take their time and breathe. Some of the music cues from composers, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, were a bit heavy handed at some points, but overall effective, especially when it came to the more atmospheric moments. And another thing connecting to the film telling a story about Native Americans, but focusing on two white people sort of flirts with the white savior trope, but I think the film is at least aware, and attempts to address it on a thematic level. And really, the only thing that might turn people off this compared to stuff like Sicario, or Hell or High Water is that it isn’t in anyway concerned in elevating itself above being a straightforward genre piece, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with that.
At it’s best, Taylor Sheridan cements himself at a master in creating and holding tension, knowing just when to pull the trigger and put the audience on edge. Whatever flaws Wind River may have had are instantly forgiven once the final act kicks in. It’s so good, that it alone puts the film slightly above Hell or High Water, and well beyond Sicario for me. It contains one of the best shootouts in recent memory, and an ending that is simultaneously thrilling, cathartic and heartbreaking. It is far from perfect, but the cast is uniformly great, and the film has more than enough moments that prove Taylor Sheridan is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to American genre filmmaking.