After his little-known debut Vile, Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, returns to directing with Wind River. His latest falls in line with those gritty, almost old-fashioned American thrillers he scripted, but lacks the directorial flare to take the true story to the next level.
The title refers to a Native American reservation in the mountains of Wyoming, where an 18-year-old has been found raped and half buried in the snow. The FBI dispatch their closest agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), to investigate. She’s not ready for the challenges of the unforgiving environment, so she recruits local hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) to assist her investigation.
Like Sicario, Wind River should be commended for its female lead, especially one who defies the other characters’ expectations of her. But once again, that doesn’t compensate for the fact that Sheridan seems almost exclusively concerned with “man” problems. Both Wind River and Sicario ultimately sideline their female protagonists to tell stories of grieving men and their thirst for vengeance. It doesn’t surprise me that Sheridan has dropped Emily Blunt’s character from the Sicario sequel, Soldado, stating that he doesn’t have a story for her. Sheridan seems incapable of committing to his female protagonists.
Both Olsen and Renner do a good job, but the script prioritizes Cory, and he dominates the film as a result. Renner occupies quite a singular position as a big screen American hero. In the vein of Robert Mitchum, he has a gruff, world-weary masculinity, but is often framed as a family man struggling with time spent away from his wife and children. Joss Whedon utilized that characteristic in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Sheridan explores similar issues here.
Cory personifies the type of (male) characters Sheridan is so interested in. They’re cowboys, essentially: characters stuck in the past. But, as put forward by Sheridan, that’s the best place to be. The law is always present in his films, but it’s the men with an axe to grind that provide the narrative driving force. Law plays second fiddle to old-fashioned American justice, and what crime is more sinful than rape?
The spotlight on Native American characters and issues sets the film apart, as does the location. Sheridan explores the essence of Wind River: its sense of crime-fostering hopelessness and the constant battle with nature. The scenery (Utah doubling for Wyoming) is stunning and a stark visual contrast to Sheridan’s desert-set predecessors. Cory’s camouflage blends with the snow-capped surroundings, while his hardened facial features stand out, exposed like the rocky crags atop the great mountains.
It’s a violent thriller. Shootouts are few and far between, but they’re dirty, assaultive and distressing. These sequences are powerful, especially when compared to the sanitized and glamorized bloodshed of much mainstream studio fare. But Sheridan doesn’t linger or revel; the presentation of violence is cold and matter of fact (and all the more shocking for it).
Disappointingly, the reveal of what actually happened to the victim doesn’t ring true cinematically. The jump between a few scattered puzzle pieces and a finished jigsaw doesn’t come across as natural and, by providing all the answers in one go, Sheridan limits audience engagement.
Wind River is a well crafted, but straightforward, thriller with an interesting setting and social context. But, despite that, Sheridan mostly avoids grappling with wider existential issues or themes beyond the man problems he’s explored elsewhere. It’s based on a true story, but Wind River could have done with a bit more poetry.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.