Few writers have been in a better position to express their voice so clearly than Taylor Sheridan. While just his second directorial effort, Sheridan’s voice was brought to life in both Sicario and Hell or High Water to the point that it feels as though both were directed by him. However, in seeing Wind River, the first film he wrote and directed (his debut film Vile was directed, not written, by him), it is clear that he does benefit from working with better directors. While Sheridan capably directs the film’s strong script, it remains true that in the hands of somebody superior, Wind River could have been a classic. As it stands, it is instead a pretty good film with great ideas on its mind that it handles far too bluntly at times. A thrilling and sorrowful film about a murder on an Indian reservation, Wind River works, but not to the degree that it should have, leaving it as a good but disappointing work.
In both Sicario and Hell or High Water, it became clear that Sheridan’s thematic focus was upon the disenfranchised. In the former, he focused on those living under the thumb of the Cartel in both Mexico and across the border in America. In the latter, he focused upon those left behind in the dust by the financial collapse in the late 2000s. Now, in Wind River, he turns his focus on a group of people Americans have contributed to the demise of: Native Americans. With a Native American girl, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), found dead on the reservation by wildlife and game tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the murder serves as merely a gateway into the life on the reservation. For FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), this functions as if it were another world. Completely isolated and on their own without back-up, the tribal police run by Ben (Graham Greene) operate across a territory the size of Rhode Island with just six officers. With such little police presence, no opportunity for advancement via education or jobs, and readily available drugs and alcohol, the Wind River Indian Reservation is the quintessential depiction of life for Native Americans in America right now. With missing girls reaching astronomical figures, alcoholism running rampant, and drug use throughout, Wind River calls attention to the issues facing Native Americans in a searing, depressing, and realistic depiction. When handling these issues, Sheridan does so beautifully and skillfully, burying them within average conversations between Cory and men believed to be somewhat connected to the murder. In every home on the reservation, demons reside and it is best to pretend that they are not actually there.
Sheridan’s ability to use the death of Natalie (six miles away from any building) as a metaphor and symbolism for the life of Natives is perhaps the film’s most impressive aspect. Dying not from being raped or killed, but from having her lungs explode due to the cold weather, Sheridan subtly and smartly depicts how the land has even turned against Native Americans after all these years. Through the turmoil and strife thrust upon them by Americans, Native Americans could always count on the lands to sustain them in their time of need. However, with such little territory and animals such as the bison leaving Indian reservations, the staples of Native American life have left them in the lurch to the point that they have nothing to do and are without hope. What were once proud people have been left destitute through their interactions with Americans and through the changing of times as crops die and animals leave. While Americans led them to their grave with a gun to their head, degradation and instability of the land is truly what nailed the final nail in the coffin of Native Americans. However, while the situation is hopeless and destitute – just as the one faced by Natalie with her having to run six miles barefoot just to get where she was, which was nowhere – this race of people that have been in the Americas for thousands of years refuse to give up and will fight until their dying breath.
Sheridan, in the course of depicting how the land and circumstance is truly what is killing Native Americans, refuses to let Americans off the hook. At the end of the day, the only reason Native Americans are in this situation to begin with because of whites. It is a central argument in the film that it is impossible to define. With the case of Natalie, she was clearly led to run in the snow by some malevolent force that is certainly guilty of homicide. However, the coroner cannot give the cause of death as homicide as she died because of her lungs exploding. While it is true that it should be considered a homicide, that is not her cause of death. Though it is true that the land turning against Native Americans has worsened conditions on reservations, the primary reason conditions were horrid to begin with was American intruders. Utilizing what might seem at first to be disposable dialogue to create this metaphor, Sheridan is able to create incredible depth in the film that is not constantly calling attention itself, but rather bubbling in the background.
Sheridan further expands upon this heavy reliance upon metaphors when it comes to the murder itself. Setting the film up with Cory being tasked with tracking mountain lions that killed a steer, which leads to him finding the body, Wind River winds up using this as symbolism that ties directly into the climax. With Natalie being raped and forced to run to her death by a group of Americans, Sheridan smartly depicts how the whites have systematically ‘raped’ Native Americans for centuries, leaving them without hope while still expecting them to survive (allowing them to distance themselves from their guilt). The men raped her in a pack, akin to how lions or coyotes hunt. When Jane, Ben, and the Fremont County officers arrive at the oil rig to question the guilty parties, the men similarly pack around and begin to flank the officers leading to increased tensions and hostilities. Creating a visual parallel between the opening scene of Cory killing a coyote that is stalking a group of goats and his sniping work on the pack of men surrounding the cops, Sheridan’s mastery of symbolism and metaphor is easily Wind River‘s greatest accomplishments. Few films so nimbly and smartly handle such issues, yet Sheridan makes it feel so easy that it is a wonder that every writer worth their salt has not reached the level of depth through simplicity that Sheridan has been able to create.
While the script is certainly the strongest part of Wind River, it would be a disservice to not complement the acting of Jeremy Renner in the role of Cory Lambert. Admitting that Emily Blunt’s character was not really the lead in Sicario and seeking to adjust that in Wind River, Sheridan focuses on Renner’s mysterious game tracker while Olsen’s FBI agent is largely left in the background. Taking charge and running the show from the very beginning, Renner is finally given another chance to shine as an actor in a major role after a few years of smaller roles. Relegated to the Marvel series, a small role in American Hustle, and backseat to Amy Adams in Arrival, Renner is finally given a chance to build upon his roles in The Hurt Locker and The Town with yet another magnetic and commanding performance. At his side, Elizabeth Olsen is fine but hardly excellent. She never really reaches great heights, but is entirely serviceable. For one of her first chances to really flash her chops it is hard to find too much fault with her performance as a spot to build-on for her career, but compared to Renner’s towering turn it is easy to lose Olsen in the shuffle.
In spite of the film’s strengths and major appeals, it is hardly the pre-eminent work by Taylor Sheridan. Compared to Sicario or Hell or High Water, Wind River feels a lot more reliant upon narrative clichés to tell its story. Introducing us to Cory and his ex-wife, the opening of the film feels like useless backstory and exposition that Sheridan is on record for expressing his distaste for. The film then doubles down on introducing viewers to Cory’s child who, after being assured dad would be back after a few more hours outside, is never mentioned again. Cory just never comes back to get him at his grandparents place, Sheridan forgets him, and then the kid reappears later when referenced by Cory’s ex-wife as being in her house. Furthermore, the film elaborates more on Cory’s backstory than characters in his previous works. Detailing the death of Cory’s daughter a few years back in similar circumstances to Natalie, the film sets it up as a bit of a pseudo-vengeance thriller with Cory seeking to avenge Natalie’s death for her father Martin (Gil Birmingham) and seemingly trying to find something that will make him feel successful by finding who hurt Natalie. It may not solve his daughter’s death, but it completes that element of his life a bit more. While an interesting touch, much like the family-focused opening, its inclusion isn’t persuasive enough. Far too often in the first act, Sheridan is too lazy with the film’s set-up and even seems to be disinterested in it himself with just a few moments that recall back to the opening or by simply dropping those plot lines altogether. Compared to his tight, no-nonsense storytelling he is known for, Wind River is chubby around the edges.
Wind River’s subtle treatment of its central thesis is admirable, but unfortunately it must share space for Sheridan’s thoughts on grief and loss. Constantly pouring out of Jeremy Renner’s mouth, the film’s depiction of grief – crying, a character cutting oneself, and more – is often addressed appropriately but over-theatrically. The melodrama and sentimentality is beautifully written, but unrealistic. They feel similar to lines a writer dreams up, writes down, and sends off in an amateur script without regard to whether or not somebody would actually say those words. They are poetic and heart-aching to some degree, but are far too cloying and manipulative to actually work when spoken. Renner does his best with the lines and really breathes life into them, but otherwise, the film seems to lose sight of its subtle and brilliantly put together themes other than grief, which is as blunt and hamfisted as can be. It is the type of cinematic moment that gets the “here is what it all means” treatment. Much of this hapless romanticizing of grief goes hand-in-hand with the film being far more bloated than it needs to be. Sheridan later doubles down during a third act that has multiple endings and further attempts to drag tears out of the audience’s eyes in blatantly manipulative and overly sentimental ways. After a thrilling climax, it is a crushing halt to the proceedings that leaves Wind River as being a good film with glaring faults.
Despite lacking the flare of Denis Villeneuve, David Mackenzie, or even Roger Deakins’s cinematography in Sicario, Wind River is nonetheless a thrilling experience. Throughout the film, it is impossible to come away unimpressed with how Wind River takes its time without becoming slow. It entertains, provides details, provides thrills, and keep the audience on edge throughout, without ever having to reach a huge pay-off too quickly. That said, the pay-off is worth the wait in this slow burn thriller. Setting it up with great staging at the campsite, the film’s explosive climax really nails it with excellent sound effects, direction, and choreography providing the right atmosphere and visuals. It hearkens back to the explosive sequence at the dinner table in Sicario, except a bit more gutsy and extravagant in design and choreography. It is more impersonal in the violence in this way with Sheridan using a tight medium shot to capture the action, though the sequence retains every bit of the viscera and horror of its brethren.
The major misstep Sheridan has in telling the film’s story, aside from the faults in the opening and the cloying handling of the grief ideas the film presents, is when he finally shows what happened. It is jarring with a quick cut to the events that harkens back to The Silence of the Lambs in style except that it is not a cross-cut. Instead, Wind River cuts to a flashback showing the events in the trailer on the night that Natalie and her boyfriend Matt (Jon Bernthal) went missing. The scene is handled fine, is disturbing, somewhat graphic, but just never flows with the rest of the picture. The sequence as a whole just feels too distant. For a film that relies on tension and atmosphere, the flashback also serves to undermine that element by tipping the film’s hand too readily as to what happened that night and what is set to unfold. By the end of the film, this brief flashbacks feels cut-and-paste from a different film or a different version of this film, perhaps kept in to add clarity and certainty to a film that is otherwise content without answers. Cory knows he will never know what happened to his daughter and the situation the Native Americans face is similarly one that seems to have no definite answer. Yet, this hand-holding and forced flashback seems to undermine both by providing definitive answers and certainty.
Though a fair bit heavy-handed and hamfisted at times, Wind River’s gripping murder tale and phenomenal use of symbolism to develop its subtler themes make it a truly strong work. While lacking the polish and assured hand of Denis Villeneuve in Sicario or David Mackenzie in Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan nonetheless shows promise as a director. As it stands, Wind River is a good film that had the potential to have been great.