Taylor Sheridan has made a big name for himself as a screenwriter with only Sicario and Hell Or High Water under his belt. Now with his directorial debut, Wind River, Sheridan has proven himself as one of the more interesting voices of modern cinema and someone unafraid to touch upon darker subject of America.
Set in and around the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, Wildlife hunter Cary Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is called by his ex-wife’s father-in-law to deal with a lion that’s been killing his livestock when he comes across the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), an 18 year old resident on the reservation the best friend of Lambert’s deceased daughter Emily. With signs of sexual assault on the body, the police call the FBI however the only person available is rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson) in Las Vegas who is unfamiliar with the location or the cold.
After Natalie’s autopsy confirms sexual assault but also that she died from the cold rather than somebody’s hands Banner is unable to request anymore help in the investigation so asks Lambert to assist her, needing someone to help her traverse the cold environment and the even colder locals.
On the surface it might sound like a fairly simple murder/mystery but there’s more to it than that, for one thing the mystery actually ends up playing second fiddle because who killed Natalie and why don’t end up being so important. Instead the film is a character piece with the location being the central character, Lambert and Banner’s investigation takes them through the reservation and beyond to see all sorts of locals and their reaction to law enforcement. It’s definitely a film where the journey beats the destination but I do believe that was intentional.
Acting was strong on all fronts, whether it was smaller roles like Natalie’s grief-stricken parents (Gil Birmingham and Althea Sam)trying to understand what happened to their daughter or larger characters like Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) being one of the few loyal friends that Lambert had in the desolate wastes.
Lambert himself gave Renner some of the best work he’s had since Hurt Locker, there’s a lot of layers to Lambert and not all of them pleasant, he comes across as cold, focussed and more than a little grey on the morality scale as evidenced by his frequency at hitting people. While he is willing to help Banner and he is good at his job there is a detachment to him, at first you think it’s just a reminder of losing his own daughter and since Natalie was her friend he does have a personal connection to the victim, however you come to realise that both girls died in disturbingly similar circumstances and the case is bringing up question that Lambert doesn’t want answered, his detachment isn’t to the case but to the memory. It’s a strong role from Renner who keeps himself subtle but allows for a few small moments to flash through, reminding you of just what this man could be willing to do if he allows himself to.
Olson’s Banner is sadly not up to par but she does have the task of playing the straight woman, the outsider that the audience can latch onto and see this world from a different perspective. To be fair to Olson there’s nothing inherently wrong with the character of Banner, she’s young and inexperienced but tough and willing, knowing the right thing needs to be done but left without a paddle in order to get it done and Olson plays the part well, her initial hesitance does slowly give way to a more assertive personality. However she’s is a familiar character type and compared to Renner she does come up short, I don’t want to take away from Olson’s performance which is strong for what the film is looking for but we have seen this character before.
While Sheridan does only have three films under his belt you can definitely see some similar themes in the writing, namely the dark underbelly of an American culture, in Sicario it was the drug trade, in Hell Or High Water it was the banks and now here it’s the frozen backwoods residents. Admittedly not as focussed but setting the film is such a ice-covered wasteland does become the focal point, the whole reservation and surrounding area is this silent, desolate wilderness with this thick, all-encompassing snow littering the area and making it feel like you’re literally in the middle of nowhere, like there is no escape and so the people will turn to drugs or violence and just crime in general to force a momentary escape from the harsh reality. Sheridan’s focus here isn’t just what evils men can do, but what can drive men to commit such evils.
Thankfully, even with his first directing job Sheridan proves that he can translate his dark penmanship to the screen with this being as intense as his previous works. An early stop at a drug den sets the tone with a sudden gunfight and shock use of Bear-Mace showing just how unpredictable and untrustworthy the locals are and what’s in store for Banner as she pushes forward with the case. The chill in the air isn’t just from the cold weather and the finale in particular brings about some very tense moments, be it a very on-edge meeting or a flashback where even when you’ve figured out what happened, seeing it play out leaves a stone in your gut. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its softer moments, one of the underlying themes is the reaction of grief as shown through Lambert and Natalie’s parents, to some grief is violent and angry, to others its hollow and depressive, but to all it lingers and the struggle faced is how to come to terms with it and not to let every single reminder eat away at you until there’s nothing left.
Wind River is a dark film and notably so, it’s the type of film that’s reminiscent of Se7en or Chinatown, a reminder that there is ugliness in this world and sometimes a happy ending just isn’t possible. Renner and Olson both do strong work as out guides into this world with Renner arguably being never better but it’s Sheridan who’s the real standout, putting on a very brave voice and now having proved himself as a director I’m very excited to see where he goes next.
4 Hairpieces out of 5