Taylor Sheridan’s last two scripts, Sicario, and Hell or High Water are both films that aim to illustrate large social ills—drug cartels, economic disenfranchisement—via neo-Westerns about the nature of manhood. While it is certainly familiar ground for the genre, the strong scripts as executed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively, made each film resonate louder than similar films. Wind River, a murder mystery set on the Indian Reservation of the same name in rural Wyoming, fits nicely in with those other two films, this time concerning missing persons and Native American issues. This time Sheridan steps into the director’s chair as well, ensuring his words are delivered with the precision we’ve come to expect from his writing.
And Wind River is sublimely directed. Moving away from the dryness of the other two films and relocating the action to the equally barren landscape of snowy Wyoming makes this feel different enough, and the color palette is appropriately gray to match. But even more impressive is Sheridan’s grasp of tension. Violence in his scripts is often sudden, but here he focuses on suspense to drive home the film’s themes of survival and preparedness. Late in the film, a sequence involving a large amount of characters rises and falls a few times before the situation (inevitably) devolves into bloodshed, and at that point, it almost comes as a relief for both us and the characters.
While the film has a central mystery, the resolution is all character-driven. The film’s main character is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an agent of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. While searching for mountain lions that are preying on cattle on the reservation, he discovers the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) barefoot and frozen in the snow, miles away from the nearest building. Ben (Graham Greene), the head of the reservation’s meager police force (the film tells us he has six men “to cover an area the size of Rhode Island”) calls in the FBI. Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), the nearest available agent stationed in Las Vegas is dispatched to determine whether or not there was a homicide. Bureaucratic rules mean that the three characters team up to solve the case.
After Chris Pine’s turn in Hell or High Water, it is easy to see why he was originally cast in Renner’s role. Both men are quiet, simple, and above all methodical. While Pine’s Toby is a planner, Cory Lambert is a tracker. He describes himself as a predator stalking other predators, and his skills obviously are integral in solving the murder. I enjoy Renner in roles like this, similar to the way his Arrival character grew on me. Maybe he just plays bland expert especially well.
He’s also likely to be the film’s most controversial character. A white lead in a story about the poverty and vulnerability of Native Americans, it would be easy to dismiss this choice as problematic. Realities of film financing aside, the film doesn’t exactly give Lambert a free pass on this issue. His ex-wife is Arapaho, and Renner portrays Lambert as very respectful of their culture. But the way he interacts with non-white characters in the film is based on their individual relationships rather than some sort of universal acceptance and most still view him as an outsider. Of course, it doesn’t help that Renner is often sharing wisdom even if it is reasonable based on the way the character is written.
Elizabeth Olsen’s character mostly acts as an audience surrogate. She’s a green agent for sure, and she is obviously even more of an outsider than Lambert. Her lack of experience serves the film’s plot more than it does her character, but Olsen does well to underline everything with a sense of resolve and will that ties in to the film’s themes.
Almost every aspect of the film works. The tension, the plotting, the dialogue, and the cinematography all work together in a way that the film hums, everything tuned to the same frequency. Sheridan makes the choice to depict the crime at the center of this mystery in unflinching detail, and places it in the film within the final third. It doesn’t feel strictly necessary in order for us to understand the gravity of the crime, as an explanation of the mystery, or as justification for justice/revenge. The scene itself is brutal to watch, but well-executed. There’s certainly a conversation to be had about whether it is needed, especially in terms of what the film owes to the female victim.
Wind River made me think back to The Hateful Eight, and not just for meteorological reasons. Specifically the monologue by Tim Roth’s character, who is posing as an executioner. “The man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” He’s contrasting civilized justice from frontier justice, and despite the films being set over 100 years apart, Sheridan’s films are always wrestling with the idea of justice and revenge. To his cowboy leads, what is right is not the same as what is lawful. While this film isn’t as morally gray as Hell or High Water (the distinction between ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’ is much sharper in this film), it still asks us to wrestle with these questions. Depiction is not endorsement.
As a thriller, Wind River is one of the best films of the year. Completely engaging and tense, and riveting enough where after spending 111 minutes in remote Wyoming, stepping outside into a cool mid-August evening brought a shock of how warm it was outside.
Wind River opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.