Taylor Sheridan struck pay dirt with his script for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, a taught, tense crime thriller set within the world of law enforcement infiltration of Mexican drug cartels and people smuggling operations on both sides of the Mexico-USA border. Following up with the Texas-set contemporary western Hell or High Water (for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay), Sheridan has made a somewhat drastic geographical change for his first outing as both writer and director, moving the action to the unforgiving winter landscape of rural Wyoming. Yet another crime drama, Wind River is much more contained than either of his previous two stories, despite the vastness (more than 2 million acres) of the Wind River Native American Reservation on which the story unfolds. The correlation between Wind River and the seemingly insatiable appetite for Nordic Noir – both on the page and screen – is hard to ignore given that a lot of what we see here draws on the same elements; isolation, distrust of outsiders, extreme weather and social disadvantage, particularly amongst indigenous populations. The film also explores masculinity, grief and the logistical and financial hardships seemingly inherent in so many rural and remote communities.
In what is perhaps his most earnest performance to date, Jeremy Renner is tracker and hunter Corey Lambert, who stumbles across the body of Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) – a young local woman – in the freezing Wyoming wilderness and subsequently finds himself working alongside FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) in trying to identify the person, or persons, responsible for her death. The case is especially troubling for Lambert due to the death of his own teenage daughter in unsavoury circumstances two years earlier, a tragedy that resulted in the breakdown of his marriage. The inexperienced Banner is a fish out of water in this rugged rural outpost, arriving amid a snowstorm without any suitable clothing for the conditions and, with little understanding of the local people or the circumstances in which they live, her investigation draws heavily on the experience of Lambert and indigenous police chief Ben (Graham Greene). Natalie’s parents Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Alice (Tantoo Cardinal) have no idea who may have done it, but their drug-addled son sheds some light when he identifies Natalie’s boyfriend as a member of a security team that works for an oil company with an operation nearby.
From this point, things move rather quickly and, when the intrepid trio reach the oil company site, a 10-man Mexican standoff ensues that is more comical than it was perhaps intended, particularly in light of the flashback scenes preceding it that show exactly what happened to Natalie. There are flashes of Tarantino and Peckinpah in these sequences, but the ultimate villain emerges as an over-the-top construct whose sheer lunacy seems out of place and undermines any social commentary Sheridan may have been hoping to deliver on the poor quality of life on Native American reservations and the plight of young women in these communities.
Like Sheridan’s previous two films, Wind River is a neo-western story set amidst the treachery of life in the new frontiers of America. The murder-mystery storyline is engaging enough but the payoff arrives too suddenly, just when it seemed like it was building into something more complex and, as such, the film fails to subvert genre conventions in any meaningful way. The cinematography by Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) captures the chilling temperatures and isolated feeling of its setting effectively, while Renner and Olsen are good as the mismatched partners who enjoy a nice chemistry with Ben, whose initial dismay at Banner’s appointment to the case makes way for respect and appreciation. Birmingham, who also featured in Hell or High Water, captures the stoicism and silent sadness of Martin to great effect, with Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, Baby Driver) appearing in a small but pivotal role. Although more straightforward than his previous scripts, Wind River emerges as both brutal and beautiful, an above average procedural thriller that delves into the ugliest corners of the American experience.