2017 | rated R | starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen | directed by Taylor Sheridan | 1hr 47mins |
Inside the harsh, unforgiving climate of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, a Fish and Wildlife tracker (Jeremy Renner) finds the body of teenager frozen to death and teams up with a Vegas FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to track down the suspect when evidence of foul play surfaces.
With his third script, writer Taylor Sheridan steps into the director’s chair for a film that feels personal and close to him. It could very well not be, but you wouldn’t know that from how thorough and emotionally enveloping Wind River is. That’s movie magic. The writer of the solid Hell or High Water and the terrific Sicario again shows an ear for meticulous, procedural crime films that let the character’s journey take the lead over the mystery. As mysteries go, Wind River is about as straight-forward as it comes. So if you like your thrillers where the serial killer plots elaborate cat-and-mouse games with the cops, rips off his mask at the end and turn out to be the victim’s own mother or is revealed to be the schizophrenic alter-ego of the cop investigating the case… this is not that movie.
What it is is a richly satisfying, adult drama about life in this particular part of the world. Using time honored tropes to spin to it’s advantage, Sheridan builds the movie on the mismatched impromptu partnership of the straight-laced, young FBI agent Jane Banner – the audience surrogate into the true brutality of living on this land – and Renner’s character Corey Lambert who gets wrapped up in the mystery because he knows the family of the victim and has a particular set of skills involving following tracks. While the mystery isn’t a McGuffin, and in fact is resolved as exciting as any crazy studio twist, the real villain in Wind River is the land itself. As the film goes on we meet person after person that has had someone taken from them by the harsh living conditions. We meet people whose loved ones died or simply disappeared, how the survival drives people to desperation and the detailed effects on the body of what it’s like to freeze to death, when your lungs freeze and explode inside you.
As a director, Sheridan sinks us into that world, like being dipped in freezing cold molasses with beautiful barren landscapes and a haunting musical score. From the minute Jane enters the reservation she finds herself in a different world where typical procedure is useless at every turn because they’re too far from help, have too small a local police force or the weather simply won’t allow it. None of the supporting characters that make up this world are stock. The reservation sheriff who trades dry lines with a neighbor who finds lions on his property. The victim’s brother and his den of drug addicts. Lambert’s ex-wife, a Native American herself sharing a tragic past. The script is excellent. Paying attention to the jokey natural way people talk to each other, the trapped feeling of life on a Native American Reservation and displaying a seemingly intimate and insightful knowledge of loss. All that, without a hint of melodrama.
Renner and Olsen chew up and knock out the challenge this film mounts on them. Renner particularly conveying the heavy heart of a grieving father trying to offer advice to another grieving father. Olsen, capable, trying to keep her head above water. In one of the movie’s best scenes she is left hovering alone in a hall between a mother cutting herself and a father whaling in anguish on the front porch.
Wind River didn’t immediately blow me away the way movies with this high a score usually would. It’s not showy or theatrical or shocking. It doesn’t break the mold and nobody is going to confuse Sheridan for the gritty iconoclasm of David Fincher. It just quietly strikes each little note to near perfection, filling the frame with rich details. The climax sneaks up on us and before you know it Sheridan has pulled together the character drama, the atmosphere and the mystery without forgetting the visceral thrills of modern Western gunplay. It’s icy, moody, yes, procedural. It lingers in the brain and sloshes around for days afterward. It’s a strong directorial debut that defines Sheridan’s meticulous style and voice immediately. With a track record of 3 scripts like this and now as a filmmaker, I look forward to years of Sheridan spinning the modern western in fresh new directions.