Synopsis – An FBI agent teams with a town’s veteran game tracker to investigate a murder that occurred on a Native American reservation.
My Take – Over the past couple of years, actor Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy) has been making a bit of noise in Hollywood, mainly due to his transition as a supporting actor to one of top-tiered screenwriters in the industry following the success of both his films Sicario and Hell or High Water. Being recognized as talent that brought the hard edge of film noir and the world-weary melancholy of the Western, and meshing them into a darkly brilliant thriller that’s just cunning, sharp and profound. Here, trying his hand for the first time at directing in mainstream cinema (after 2011’s low budget horror Vile), director Sheridan continues his stellar run with a heart-wrenching study of loss and grief wrapped in a taut crime thriller narrative, while telling a tale of vengeance and investigation that fits right at home with his previous works. And with this film, its seems writer/director Sheridan’s personal artistry mission to do some effort to right the wrongs that the system has committed continues, by allowing the snowy Wyoming setting to completely envelope the characters in a world that feels like it has no exits, both physically and emotionally, hereby completing his American Frontier Trilogy. The story follows Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife officer, an expert tracker and a marksman, whose job primarily involves eradicating all wild animals who prey on livestock in his town situated on the frigid snows capes of a Native American reservation in Wyoming. During a hunt to track down a pack of lions, Cory comes across the body of a young woman who was so scared she ran barefoot in the sub-zero snow at night until her lungs froze. Recognizing her to be Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a teenage girl and daughter of one of his close family friends, Cory quickly calls in the very thin law enforcement department headed up by Gen (Graham Greene) to secure the crime scene. However, as the body was found on the Wind River Native American reservation, the FBI sends in a young agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to investigate.
Being based Las Vegas, Jane quickly realizes that she is not prepared for the blistering cold of this remote part of Wyoming & unmatched for the elements and the isolated community. With the list of suspects limited, and with time not on their side, Jane enlists Cory’s help in piecing together the clues to find out what happened to Natalie. Through, the unforgiving territory they uncover a history so intertwined and intimately sad that the more you come to know, the more you wish you didn’t. As with his previous efforts, Sheridan‘s screenplay wastes little time on exposition, instead dropping us in on these characters and their lives and allowing us to discover their backgrounds and motivations based almost entirely on context clues. The only exception is a somewhat jarring flashback in the film’s third act, which details the events leading up to Natalie’s desperate escape attempt. On its own, the material is excellent, but its placement in the overall narrative feels somewhat out of place, and possibly even a bit unnecessary – there’s certainly an argument to be made for a less explicit reveal, as this erodes some of the intrigue of the film’s central mystery. This is fractured and sometimes fascinating thriller that draws deep on the wintry brutality of the landscape, the film unfolds in the mountainous back blocks of Wyoming. The Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water has spealized writing about honor-bound but compromised, reserved men in pursuit of doing the right thing. So, it’s only fitting that Sheridan’s directorial venture revolves around another example of stoic masculinity. This film, which he also penned, is ostensibly a tense crime thriller but it’s much more effective as a film about an unforgiving place and the people forced to contend with its natural brutality and while the narrative remains low-key but gradually builds toward its gripping conclusion. As a writer, Sheridan has a particular talent for evoking a sense of place. In Hell or High Water, it was the economic despair seeped through West Texas, in Sicario, it was the lawlessness of the US/Mexico border in Arizona, here, it’s the punishing weather and the violence and despair it breeds in people paint a harsh and almost unlivable existence & the effect is visceral. Sheridan captures the cold vastness of the terrain and the scornful hardiness of those inhabiting it. There are times he ladles on too many elements – the score can be intrusive – but beyond that he’s trying to depict a world that can break perpetrators and bystanders alike, and that requires a rare level of harshly suggestive finesse. As far as the mystery goes, it’s fairly straightforward. But that’s not what this film is really about, the crime is only used as the device to propel the story and the characters. Corey is a decent man who understands the score, and one whose own past tragedy lends focus and authenticity to the story. The almost dialogue-free exchanges between Corey and the father of the murdered girl are some of the most thoughtful scenes of the film. Sheridan’s approach to dialogue is one of the reasons his characters, even supporting ones that pop up for two minutes, are well-rounded. Though the film does manage to wear its forlorn heart on its sleeve to maximum effect, the writer/director’s trademark humor does find its way into the film’s narrative, while not disrupting the more dramatic moments. Sheridan has tackled themes surrounding the Native Americans before but with this latest one, it’s not so much that he’s preaching about it but he ties it into this entire fabric of community where you sense the clash between outsiders and locals, between whites and natives, so there’s a level of frustration about that arises from this murder investigation that brings up all kinds of cultural suspicions, on top of which there’s also a game of jurisdictions. Unraveling the mystery of her death is the nominal point of the film, but Sheridan seems as interested in introducing us to the forgotten world in which this crime has taken place as anything else. Cory’s existence seems to straddle the Wind River Indian Reservation: He is white and employed by the feds so he’ll always be an outsider; he nevertheless has deep ties to the reservation, his ex-wife and son a member of the Arapaho tribe that lives there.
And the fact that it’s set in a very cold harsh environment just adds to the film’s chilling effect. Because this film deals with life on an Indian reservation, much of the social and economic woes might seem unfamiliar at first, but the film does a good job of providing a snapshot of the hardship that pervades in this part of the country and the difficulty that law enforcement has in conducting even a workmanlike investigation. Sheridan depicts a world that is sympathetic and troubled at the same time, masking its tears with courage and doggedness. Also, reminiscent of Sheridan‘s past work, this film too is characterized by long periods of tension that finally erupt into bursts of violence. But unlike the stylized gunplay showcased in some of this year’s more action-oriented offerings, Sheridan is more interested in conveying the anxiety and fear that comes from being outgunned and outmatched. As a severely wounded character scrambles under a trailer and fumbles to reload, they’re forced to accept the very real possibility that they’re about to die, and the harrowing nature of this scenario (and others like it) will leave plenty of hearts pounding. At first, I thought the resolution to the film was bereft of logic, but that just may be the point. What leaches through the film is not a fear of dark, diligent motives but casual, improvised monstrousness. While the film’s story is as compelling as it is believable, the only weak link is the mystery central to the film’s plot. It’s adequate enough to push the film along, but it’s a fairly simple case to crack after a certain point of the film’s running time. However, the advantage to that aspect is how Taylor Sheridan‘s story is left to delve more into the human components of revenge, loss, and justice that drive our characters. So, while this may not be as much of a procedural as audiences will be expecting, the film left turns into some heavier material that is normally absent from a film that would pay more attention to the former. This in turn amplifies the film’s limited instances of violence when they do occur, as sudden and explosive bursts of action punctuate the methodical story being spun throughout. From a performance standpoint, Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are both exceptional as a dissimilar pair. I really dug the way that both Renner and Olsen dialed it way back within their characters, while Renner plays his character like an old timer western hero who knows the ins and outs of everything, a man of few words but gets tough when needed, Olsen is excellent playing a rookie FBI agent out of her element but not out of her depth, provides the perfect audience surrogate, serving as our eyes and ears in this foreign landscape. Gil Birmingham, who played junior partner to Bridges’ senior and retiring Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water, delivers a quietly devastating performance as the dead girl’s father. Graham Greene gives great balance and levity to their dynamic while keeping his character involved as a reminder of the heightened sensitivity of their situation. Kelsey Asbille & Julia Jones despite their few scenes play their parts well. Jon Bernthal has a small but important role in a critical scene, proving yet again why he is awesome. On the whole, ‘Wind River’ is a refreshingly complex yet cleverly woven thriller that combines its factors to serve a very compelling film.
Directed – Taylor Sheridan
Rated – R
Run Time – 107 minutes