Taylor Sheridan is the mastermind writer behind Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” (2015) and David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” (2016), in which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Although no continuity, “Wind River” acts as the final chapter in Sheridan’s neo-western frontier trilogy, once again romanticising his passion for western tropes and the gun slinging violence of that era. Western feel aside, Texas-born Sheridan’s previous scripts were topical that provoked thought, discussion and insight into various issues. Wind River is no different. “Sicario” tackled the US war on Mexican drug cartels, trafficking and ambiguity of law enforcement methods and jurisdiction, whilst “Hell or High Water” highlighted the economic plight of West Texas, the US housing crisis and predatory practices of financial institutions. Wind River focuses on American social issues such as the marginalisation of Native Americans, impoverishment, substance abuse and cultural ignorance.
This crime thriller mystery opens with a barefoot teenage girl sprinting desperately across a moon soaked snow covered open plain, until she collapses with exhaustion, ultimately crawling to her death. The next day she is discovered by Cory Lambert, a Wyoming tracker played by Jeremy Renner, who immediately recognises her as a friend of his teenage daughter. With the death of the Native American girl occurring on the Wind River Native American Reservation, tribal police become involved, headed by its straight faced chief played by Graham Greene. The death also captures the attention of the FBI and they send their “closest” agent from Las Vegas to help investigate. Elizabeth Olsen joins Renner, her Avengers co-star, playing inexperienced FBI agent Jane Banner. Her girl like demeanor, lack of preparation for the harsh climate and cultural ignorance all brilliantly add to her fish out of water character and the reservations isolation from the outside world. Her character traits remind me of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs.
Banner and Lambert combine to try and solve the mysterious circumstances of Natalie’s death with Lambert motivated by a past family tragedy. The relationship between Banner and Lambert is handled impressively as they both leverage each other’s skill set to move forward with the investigation. Despite her inexperience, Banner is still presented as a strong, equipped female lead, much like Sheridan wrote for Emily Blunt’s character in Sicario. Sheridan also avoids the temptation of making the two love interests, which would have been clichéd and made zero sense in the context of the story and each characters arc, instead establishing more of a mutual respect mentor relationship. Story wise, the rest of the film plays out as your typical police investigation slow burn until a violently intense climax lifted straight from the page of a Tarantino movie. It’s a climax that pays off, especially with an important scene that swerves the story from its seemingly conventional delivery that caught me off guard and was quite impressive and cleverly implemented.
This is easily one of Jeremy Renner’s best performances. It was a refreshing change that steered away from the emotionless brooding failure of Aaron Cross or light-hearted comic relief of a charter from the MCU. Lambert has personal demons that motivate him to help assist the investigation and although stoic for most parts, he has moments that scratch the surface of the heartbreak bubbling underneath. Renner’s best scenes come with Natalie’s grieving father Martin, played by the fantastic Gil Birmingham, also from Hell or High Water, who acts as a link for the socio-economic problems faced on the reservation. The cinematography captures the landscape perfectly, with some great high shots that emphasize the harsh environment during snow storms and picturesque mountains during the day.
Although she was flawless and matched Renner in performance and presence, Elizabeth Olsen’s character had very little back story or motivation other than being an FBI agent stationed in Las Vegas. Sheridan’s character driven scripts usually leave no stone un-turned and whilst it didn’t deter from the movie, it may have been a missed opportunity to strengthen FBI agent Banner’s impact. The only other minor gripe is an important character building scene that takes place indoors seemed to feature the slightly shaky camera work that the movie had adopted from its action or storm entrenched scenes. The film also ended with some powerful scenes but some text overlay at the end could have been implemented as dialogue or before the opening scene like utilised in Sicario.
The symbolism portrayed in the opening scene with Jeremy Renner acting as protector by sniping off a pack of wolves preying on a pack of weak defenceless goats sets the tone for the films narrative. Survival and protection from predators. Sheridan’s directorial debut and third original screenplay Wind River is equal parts impressive and hauntingly dark. Suffering from comic book hero fatigue? With some surprising cameos, an amazing cast and a character driven script, Wind River is a must for fans of original screenplays and contemporary crime thrillers with a western edge. All eyes on Taylor Sheridan’s next project.
Review by Buddy Watson