With just two finished movies attached to his resume as screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan has enjoyed immediate success. Sicario and Hell or High Water were both some of the finest films of their respective years. Sheridan has a classical sense of structure but he also pumps his big, bold Hollywood dramas with meaningful commentary and substance to communicate a systemic rot from within, whether it is the spiraling war on drugs, the rapacious banking industry, or an entire enclave of people that are ignored as an act of historical penance. When you come to a Taylor Sheridan movie, you leave feeling full on a banquet of superior screenwriting. Wind River is his next feast.
A young Native American woman, Natalie (Kelsey Asbillie), is found barefoot and dead in the snow on a Wyoming reservation the size of Rhode Island. A confluence of law enforcement officers investigate while questioning who has rightful jurisdiction, the state police, the Native police, or FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). She’s frustrated that, while the coroner will confirm she was raped the night of her death, Natalie is not being dubbed a homicide because of the cause of her death. Jane seeks out the assistance of Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife hunter for the Fish and Game Department who watches out for predators. He knows the land, he knows the people, he personally knows Natalie’s family, and he knows the loss of a daughter. Cory agrees to help Jane discover who is responsible for the murder and seek justice and, possibly, vengeance.
This is a deeply felt character-driven mystery that examines the lingering damage and defenses of a group of people often left on their own and often forgotten. Sheridan is quickly establishing himself as cinema’s finest voice when it comes to a twenty-first century cowboy ideal, the taciturn, wounded man soldiering onward in an unfair world. Sheridan has a commanding sense of place and character, but his perspective rarely connotes judgment. He’s more an observer, a therapeutic device for his characters to finally express themselves and their brokenness and how the world made them this way. He can be downright poetic but his instincts are for a large canvas with Hollywood thespians. He writes meaty, distinguished, and humane characters all around, not just for the leads. One of the hallmarks of Sheridan’s writing is how precise and generous he can be with his stable of supporting actors. As the story develops, we see just how the death affects the small community, a community struggling to hold itself together anyway through poverty, drug abuse, and limited work opportunities (according to a 2012 New York Times feature, life expectancy on the reservation was 49 years). There is a pervading sense of hopelessness that carries over the land. The people in this movie feel real, lived in, and haunted, and the location feels exactly the same. The ending text leaves a stark reminder of this feeling like a world on our peripheral: no statistics are kept for missing Native American women. Nobody has any sense how high that figure could be.
The leading man of Wind River is Renner (Arrival) but the real star is his character, a gritty and experienced wildlife hunter with an abiding reserve of unresolved issues pertaining to his own teenage daughter’s murder. He has some beautiful monologues in this movie, exquisitely written by Sheridan to showcase characterization and back-story. The first is when he helps his grieving friend by sharing the routine he went through with his own personal loss, specifically how forgetting the person, and the pain of their loss, is the worst thing one can do to honor them. “Take the pain. It’s the only way to keep her with you,” he says. Renner delivers his best performance since 2010’s The Town and it’s one that asks him to slow things down. This isn’t a flashy role, and even though there are some stunning monologues, it’s a role that asks for more understatement. Sheridan has a clear favorite archetype but he finds ways to make each person distinct.
Elisabeth Olsen’s (Ingrid Goes West) character is intended as the audience entry point into the land and history, so as such she will suffer as the rookie who always seems to be out of her depth. This is exemplified by just about every assailant getting the drop on her, even after a meth head answered the door by spraying her with pepper spray. To her character’s credit, other characters befell these same missteps but they aren’t the next most significant character. She’s an outsider trying to find her footing in delicate territory. Olsen is the one asking questions often, pushing others to explain, which usually means much of her performance is reactive, with characters uncorking those fantastic monologues. However, her best moment is during the end, when Cory is talking her through a traumatic recovery. It’s so obvious that he’s saying the words he always wish he could have said to his daughter, and so the psychological projection becomes too much for Jane who breaks down sobbing, serving as therapeutic vessel for empathy. It’s a powerful scene and the closest thing to catharsis the movie has to offer.
As such, the story is more a reflection and outlet for the characters, but it’s also an intriguing mystery until Sheridan decides to just throw up his hands and explain everything. Until the third act, the central mystery of who killed Natalie is filled with curious and dangling questions that are made all the more interesting from the unique setting and circumstances. Her lungs exploded from the cold after she ran, barefoot in the snow, for six miles for help before collapsing. That’s an interesting aspect I’ve never considered before when it comes to environmental dangers. Tracing back the events of her last night, Sheridan opens up an analysis on the precipitous lives of small-town America, except it’s a Native American reservation that’s sovereign from America. It’s an engrossing look into a culture and way of life few ever see. It’s a very unique setting that unfurls gradually over time, allowing the viewer to engage with the people, their fraying community, and the pain endured. And then the film hastily introduces its obvious culprits, shifts into an extended flashback sequence that explains everything, and zooms right into its tense climax. It all still works, don’t get me wrong. You’ll feel the mounting dread gnaw away at you during that flashback, and you’ll feel the rush of adrenaline during the shootout, and the sense of vindication by its conclusion. However, Sheridan was doing such a fine job at parceling out his elegiac story before that it almost feels like he quickly looked at the time and decided to rush into the finish.
This is also Sheridan’s first time behind the camera as director and he acquits himself well enough. A distinct sense of style doesn’t emerge but his directorial instincts follow his screenwriting strengths; the man knows when to get out of the way. The conclusion has a nasty snap of tension to it and the action hits its marks with power, having given quite the windup. Sheridan is best at directing his actors, who as stated above, give strong, emotive performances that linger with you. Wind River doesn’t prove that Sheridan has more to offer from a directing chair, but it does provide a baseline for a start to grow. I imagine from here on, having built up a reputation for writing critically acclaimed adult thrillers that big name actors flock to, that Sheridan will be directing the majority of his favorite scripts. He might not have the visual acuity or sense of vision that a Denis Villeneuve has, but he’ll reliably deliver strong performances from capable actors. He’ll also be the best steward for his stories, and I need so, so many of them.
Nate’s Grade: A-