Film Review: ‘Wind River’

Sundance 2017
Courtesy of Sundance

Taylor Sheridan, the screenwriter of 'Hell or High Water' and 'Sicario,' makes his directorial debut with another humanistic crime drama, though this one has more skill than excitement.

Not every great screenwriter has what it takes to step behind the camera and direct a movie (most of them, in fact, probably don’t have it). Yet every once in a while, a gifted screenwriter comes along who seems destined to take that leap. There was a lot of anticipation at Sundance before the premiere showing of “Wind River,” the first movie directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the brilliant screenplays for “Hell or High Water” (2016) and “Sicario” (2015). I suspect that’s because Sheridan thinks like a director even in his scripts, which don’t just have crackling dialogue — they have pace, structure, dimension. (That, of course, is what all screenplays are supposed to have, but how many of them do?) Sheridan also possesses a fully scaled vision of our society, and of what’s gone wrong in it. He’s drawn to men of violence on both sides of the law, and to the intricacies of crime, but what he’s really drawn to is depicting those things as an expression of our inner hunger. He’s a bristling entertainer with the soul of a noir poet.

“Wind River,” a murder mystery set on a Native American reservation that’s nestled in the wintry desolation of Wyoming, continues those obsessions. If you think that in the last few decades, the humanity has been leaking out of Hollywood filmmaking — some would say that it’s been hemorrhaging; others would say “Who cares?” — then it’s possible that no genre incarnates that decline quite like the thriller. Just say the word — thriller — and you think: Action! Guns, fights, heists, car chases. But in “Sicario” and, especially, “Hell or High Water,” Sheridan caught something debased and valiant, desperate and mournfully compelling in the sight of recognizable people caught up in the larger-than-life world of crime. In “Wind River,” he pushes that further, so that the scraggly human side of the drama is now far more potent and tangible than the underworld drive.

The movie opens in the middle of the night, with a Native American woman running barefoot, like a wounded animal, across the snowy tundra. A day or two later, her body is discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife officer whose job is to hunt and kill predators, like coyotes and wolves, that prey on local farm animals. It’s like the frontier version of pest control, but in his one-clean-shot way Cory is a cowboy. On this particular trek into the blizzardy slopes, he’s hunting down a family of mountain lions, but their tracks lead him to the frozen-solid corpse of Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), an 18-year-old Native American who was once friends with his daughter. An autopsy reveals that she was raped, and that she died because her winded lungs burst from inhaling the sub-zero air. She was that desperate to get away from someone.

Sheridan, from the opening shots, is in full command as a director, though not because he has built the movie around another of his elegantly barbed and perfectly carpentered screenplays. “Wind River,” if anything, tells a looser, scragglier, more organically simple story than “Hell or High Water” or “Sicario.” Sheridan wants us to know these people, this terrain, to feel the bite of the cold and the lonely sting of their lives. He immerses us in a place ruled by “snow and silence,” and uses the revelation of that atmosphere as the ultimate explanation of the crimes he’s unraveling.

In “Wind River” (the title comes from the name of the reservation), I think Sheridan succeeds in making the drama he set out to make. Every shot is in place (though many of them are handheld), every bit of dialogue is delivered with the right sly spirit (though some of it is mumbled), and Jeremy Renner plays the taciturn hero with a strong-and-silent yet vulnerable élan. Working on his own, Sheridan, more than before, has fashioned a true neo-1970s movie, a thriller that’s willing to lope and dawdle to shed light upon the world it shows you. “Wind River” adds up, and skillfully, but in the end it’s not all that exciting. It’s a vision of the new American despair — not an inner-city movie, but an inner-wilderness movie — and it could have used another twist or two.

When Natalie’s death starts to look like a homicide, the FBI is called in, in the person of Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a no-nonsense agent from Las Vegas. She’s the movie’s lead investigator, but she calls on Cory to act as her guide through tiny-town Wyoming and the slightly gnarly people who inhabit it. The whole place is blanketed in loss and dashed expectations, and that extends to Cory, who’s divorced, with a son, and who lost his teenage daughter three years ago. Her death haunts him, and the movie as well; when we learn how it happened, it becomes a precursor to the solving of the crime. Cory and Jane start off as oil and water, but they’re forced to protect each other, as when they raid a singularly scuzzy meth den where Natalie’s brother has been holed up. Why is he there? He says there’s nothing else to do.

Sheridan’s filmmaking is spiky and alive, but perhaps to make that possible, he wrote a script that’s less layered than the ones that brought him to this moment. There aren’t too many links to the mystery; the movie leads you from point A to point B to point C, and then — boom! — you know what happened. There’s a crazy Mexican standoff that features 10 characters standing in the snow pointing guns at each other, and, frankly, I found it hard to sort out who was getting paranoid about whom. There’s a major flashback that reveals the crime, and it’s intensely violent and a little ugly. There is also a final act of vengeance that takes place on a snowy mountaintop — and it seems a bit reductive, as if “Jeremiah Johnson” had merged with “Walking Tall.” “Wind River” isn’t, in the end, as enthralling a movie as “Hell or High Water” or “Sicario” (and it probably won’t come close to matching either one of them commercially), yet it’s skillful and compelling enough to prove that Taylor Sheridan, as a director, has the goods. Now he needs to figure out what to do with them.

Film Review: 'Wind River'

Reviewed at Eccles Theatre, Sundance Film Festival, January 21, 2017. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

A Weinstein Company release of an Acacia Filmed Entertainment, Riverstone Pictures, Star Thrower Entertainment, Synergics Films, Thunder Road Pictures production. Producers: Matthew George, Basil Iwanyk, Elizabeth Bell, Peter Berg, Wayne Rogers. Executive producers: Erica Lee, Jonathan Deckter, Nicholas Chartier, Braden Aftergood, Christopher H. Warner.

Crew

Director, screenplay: Taylor Sheridan. Camera (color, widescreen): Ben Richardson. Editor: Gary Roach.

With

Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, James Jordan.

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  1. wywoływanie okresu says:

    Usunięcie ciąży zawżdy zachęca znacznego bojaźni, wszak zlokalizowany owo ostateczna możliwość. W losie niechcianej brzemienności lepszym wyjściem będą pigułki poronne, jakie migiem tudzież konfidencjonalnie zapotrzebować można na paginy . Ich aplikacja ma miejsce w bezpieczne, nie umieszczony to no wielka interferencja w forma życia gdy aborcja chirurgiczna, tudzież blisko tym rehabilitację jest dozwolone wykonać samodzielnie, i przeto bez niebezpieczeństwa tudzież górnych kosztów. Można również egzystować w stałym kontakcie z uzdrowicielem, jaki uczestniczy oraz doradza.

  2. Kimberlin says:

    Saw this today and it was fantastic — one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in years The pacing was perfect, nothing was over-done, and it ended exactly when it was supposed to. I had read other reviews that said Elizabeth Olsen was miscast, but I strongly disagree — she and Jeremy Renner were both excellent.

  3. Ming says:

    Wind River didn’t live up to expectations. Too many pedantic monologues and descriptive narration that doesn’t seem to push the narrative of this ‘ mystery thriller’ along. The pace was often still dead. Jeremy Renner tried his best and he did a fine job under the circumstances.But Elizabeth Olsen was miscast and unbelievable ( she dead pan delivers her lines and she doesn’t have the emotional depth to pull off the hospital scene).
    The best thing in the film was the landscape that captured the silence and isolation of the Native Indians living there.

  4. Lydia Escalante says:

    As an advocate if VAWA my heart was filled with hope that exposing truth on sexual assault and jurisdictional issues come to light for all to see.

  5. Josh says:

    This movie isn’t his directing debut. He made an independent horror film called Vile in 2011 that he’s trying to bury to protect his prestige. Pretty gross.

  6. Sonny Skyhawk says:

    There are thousands of stories to tell about the Native experience in America, if only people would consult with the origin of those stories, the Native people of America.

  7. Jamie Daborn says:

    I have enjoyed both Sicario and Hell or High Water and I am looking forward to seeing Wind River.

  8. Alex says:

    Great review! This made number 5 on my top 10 article for awardscircuit.com. Can’t wait to see it!

  9. My nonprofit organization Lost Souls

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