- OnScreen Chief Film Critic
“Sicario was my favorite film of 2015.” Those were the words I used to open my review of Hell or High Water, which I ended up ranking as my #10 film of 2016. Both of those films were written by Taylor Sheridan, an actor turned writer now turned director. Wind River, a film he also wrote, is his directorial debut. After being blown away by Sicario and Hell or High Water, seeing Wind River was very high on my to-do list for 2017.
The film is set in Wyoming, in and around the Wind River Indian Reservation. While on the hunt for a mountain lion, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) comes across a body in the snow, which turns out to be a teenager from the reservation. An inexperienced FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), is dispatched from Nevada to determine if the death is a homicide or not. The coroner determines that the victim died of a pulmonary hemorrhage as a result of the freezing air in her lungs, and is unable to give Jane a result of murder from the autopsy, despite head trauma and the lack of shoes in the snow. Despite this, Jane decides to stay and assist local police in their investigation, and she asks Lambert to assist her as he works for the Fish and Wildlife Service and knows the region.
Sheridan has crafted another impressive thriller in what he calls a loose trilogy about the modern American frontier. There is a lot in this film that feels similar to Sicario and Hell and High Water; you could say they’re three distinct stories told in a similar voice. Like the previous two, Wind River features a very distinctive landscape, beautiful mountainous vistas covered in snow. You can feel the cold, much like you can feel the heat in Sicario or the dirt in Hell or High Water. Also, there is a feeling of familiarity and authenticity with the region. It is refreshing to experience a film like this that is filmed on location rather than in a studio lot or a generic city made to look like another city.
What makes Sheridan’s work as a writer (and now a director) shine, though, is his characters. With each story, they are anchored by incredible characters and actors giving great performances. This time around, the central character is Lambert, a man who has experienced his own share of grief, which resulted in the dissolution of his marriage. The victim here turns out to be the daughter of a friend of his, portrayed by Gil Birmingham. Much as he is able to be a useful guide to Jane because he knows the terrain, Lambert is able to be a guide to his friend through this tragic moment because he is familiar with the emotional landscape of grief and loss. Another character speculates whether he is assisting the investigation in the hopes of getting some closure and resolution for himself. While the crime opens up old wounds for him, Lambert is a character who has learned to live with his grief, made peace with it, and come out the other side. Renner is 100% note perfect in every scene in arguably one of the best performances of his career, possibly worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Elizabeth Olsen is also terrific as Jane, the outsider who quickly learns that she is out of her depth and must quickly adapt. She arrives unprepared for the weather, an FBI agent stationed in Vegas who happened to be nearby but she’s from Ft. Lauderdale. She initially gets off on the wrong foot with the father of the victim, learning a hard lesson about how out of her element she is as an outsider on this reservation. At one point early on when they are about to enter a trailer, she asks if they should wait for backup and is told by the police chief (played by classic That Guy actor Graham Greene), “This isn’t the land of waiting for backup. This is the land of you’re on your own.” Eventually, she acquits herself well for essentially being thrown in the deep end. Olsen does a fine job bringing to life this character that discovers a determination she either didn’t know she was in her or had not had to tap into up to this point in her life. I think there is an interesting contrast here in how the character dynamics work between Olsen and Renner’s characters here and Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro’s characters in Sicario. It’s a welcome reminder that Olsen is a talented young actress who will be known by more than just being Scarlet Witch in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and the same for Renner as Hawkeye. If the MCU is you’re only exposure to these two, you’re not doing movies right.
The film can be boiled down to a detective thriller at its barest bones, but one that resists Hollywood convention with these three-dimensional characters. The film is a thriller, but it’s not big on action, only ratcheting up the tension in a third act that reveals new characters and a flashback, which is a little unusual. The film falters a bit for it, but it also gives the film a freshness that it doesn’t adhere to the rules of a typical script. Sheridan is content to slowly peel back the onion until he is ready to reveal what is at the center of it all, ultimately ending in a satisfying manner.
An important line toward the end of the film is that “luck don’t live out here.” After three impressive scripts, it’s safe to say that there is more to Sheridan than mere luck. Whether he continues to make films in a similar vein about life in the modern American frontier or he moves on from here, he is a writer/director worth following wherever he decides to go. This unofficial trilogy that he has made is relevant and worth taking the time to sit through, even if they aren’t exactly uplifting films. Wind River is a competent and impressive directorial debut for Taylor Sheridan. Hopefully he can keep writing characters like this and finding the right actors to bring them to life.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars