Anyone who has seen the Taylor Sheridan-scripted Sicario should have a pretty good idea what they’re in for with Wind River. The actor-turned-writer has established himself as a skilled creator of gritty crime thrillers set on the remote and dangerous edges of the modern American frontier. While these settings have meant his films have flirted with the Western label, he has thus far deftly avoided the nostalgic trappings of the genre, crafting extremely modern-feeling stories placed in old-fashioned-feeling places. With his directorial debut he returns to that well for a third time, making a slick, engaging thriller, that sees him stumble slightly into a few unwelcome Western tropes.
Like his previous stories Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan exercises a deft hand in crafting nuanced and conflicted characters, and setting them against a beautiful but unforgiving landscape. The film takes place on the snowy mountain ranges of the Wind River Indian Reservation in remote Wyoming, where American flags fly upside down on front lawns, and where the young population is ravaged by drugs. Wind River is not a safe place for anyone, but is especially dangerous if you’re a young woman. This is made abundantly clear by the fate of the three female characters at the centre of the film. The first is Casey, the young daughter of Jeremy Renner’s professional hunter Cory Lambert, who was found dead in the snow around a year before the film begins. The second is Natalie, Casey’s best friend whose body is discovered on the side of a remote mountain by Cory, an incident which kicks off the murder investigation that drives the film. The third is Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner, an FBI agent who gets the call to investigate the murder and is subsequently maced, punched and shot-at throughout said investigation.
As in Sicario Sheridan centres his film around a partnership between outsider and insider. The outsider, Banner, arrives in high heels and without a jacket. Though she’s a tough, capable murder investigator, she is out of her element when it comes to understanding the realities of life on the reservation. Luckily she quickly crosses paths with the ultimate insider in Lambert, a modern day cowboy and professional hunter of predators (coyotes, wolves, cougars etc.) who is so serious about his job that he fills his own rifle shells while listening to sad country music and owns a pure white snowsuit that lets him disappear into his surroundings like a ghost with a gun. More than that, his connection with the case is deeply personal. Asked to help Banner navigate the investigation Cory accepts as a sort of repentance for the loss of his daughter; while he wasn’t able to bring Casey justice, Natalie’s death is an opportunity to avenge them both.
As the pair embark on a straight-forward but engaging murder investigation, it quickly becomes clear that Sheridan is far more interested in his cowboy hero than in his FBI agent partner. Jeremy Renner is the lucky recipient of about a half-dozen monologues in which he gruffly tells people the right way to live. He tells his wife Wilma (Julia Jones) how to drive in the snow. He tells Jane how extreme cold causes people’s lungs to explode. He even tells his friend Martin (Gil Birmingham) how to properly grieve his daughter’s death. Elizabeth Olsen, on the other hand, is just carried along for the ride. She does a good job, but it feels a bit like a squandering of talent. Sheridan’s dialogue sparkles when his characters are going about their jobs, and supporting actors like Grahame Greene and Birmingham shine, but the script grows a bit tiresome when Sheridan has Renner playing the moralizing cowboy. Given a clear cut motive and a proclivity for shooting things, it’s no surprise that he guns his way across the reservation, but where the film could have balanced him with his by-the-book partner, Banner is instead made into a wide-eyed admirer of Lambert’s violent efficiency. Most troubling though is the fact that the film shows no awareness of the ickiness of having a white male protagonist act as the lone protector of native women. In fact for a film that purports to care about women (it even features a title card at the end detailing the plight of indigenous women in America), it treats them almost exclusively as victims.
Putting aside the troubling gender representation, the film is a surprisingly assured piece of filmmaking from a first time director. The chemistry between Renner and Olsen is great, especially in a later scene in which Lambert tries to carefully open up to her about his daughter’s death before the words and emotions rush out of him in an astounding confession of grief. It’s the type of dialogue heavy scene that seems to call for a writer-turned-director like Sheridan, who knows to keep it simple and let the actors carry things. While the snowy Wyoming mountains in Wind River don’t quite fill you with the same dread that the Mexican desert does in Sicario, it’s still an ever-present threat that pervades the film and subtly motivates the action. The film’s score, provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provides some truly unnerving moments (even if Cave’s singing is distracting in a few of the film’s quieter moments) and you can practically feel the cold through Ben Richardson’s cinematography. And, as anyone who saw Sicario or Hell or High Water can attest to, Sheridan knows how to write a gunfight; a wickedly tense stand off between cops and oil workers at a remote drilling camp is a real contender for gunfight of the year.
Despite this however, Wind River is the weakest of Sheridan’s frontier films. Where his early work introduced intriguing moral questions bleaker than the landscapes in which they were set, Wind River finds no such grey-area, preferring to lapse into the over wrought and old fashioned white saviour territory of classic Western films. It’s a big disappointment for an otherwise well made and engaging thriller.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.