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.