Few in the movie biz have had a string of recent success that can rival that of Taylor Sheridan. The actor turned writer turned director really started to hit it off when he became a regular on Veronica Mars. Since then he’s continued to work his way up and in the last two years he’s written the scripts for two critically beloved films in Sicario and Hell or High Water. With plenty of success firmly under his belt, Sheridan has returned to the director’s chair with Wind River and if this film is any indication Sheridan is going to be around for a long while.
It’s the middle of the harsh Wyoming winter and Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a tracker for Fish and Wildlife Service, is searching for a mountain lion responsible for killing some livestock on the Wind River Indian Reservation. While following the paw prints in the snow he comes across another set of tracks — human tracks. The tracks leads to blood and the blood trail leads him to the dead body of a young teenage girl from the rez.
While the girl’s ultimate demise a result of the brutal winter, it’s clear that someone wanted her dead. It also appears that she was the victim of sexual assault. Cory calls in the local tribal police who then call the FBI. One dead Native girl is hardly a priority for the FBI so they send in their closest agent despite the fact that she’s still a bit blue and wildly unprepared. The agent is Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) and she’s flown in from Las Vegas. She’s so ill-informed of what she’s about to face that she shows up in nothing more than a windbreaker while it’s below freezing outside.
Jane may be out of her element, but she isn’t a dummy. She convinces Cory to assist her and is determined to do whatever it takes to find the girl’s killer. The elements make the job extremely difficult but Jane is determined. Her and Cory begin poking around and within a day that get a lead. Once they follow that lead things get a little out of hand.
Wind River has a lot of what we’ve come to expect from Sheridan’s scripts. The story is mostly thin and a repeat of things we’ve seen before but that’s a tradeoff Sheridan is willing to make in order to put his characters first. And those characters are the strong point of Wind River. Cory is an expert tracker with a wonderful young son but he’s divorced and still suffering from a terrible tragedy. Renner’s performance is outstanding. If he wasn’t already established as such this movie will have firmly placed amongst today’s best actors. He’s classic Hollywood — masculine but with a softer side.
On the flipside you have Jane, a character that easily could have been very problematic. When she first arrives on the scene we’re to believe that she is unfit for the job. It’s as if she’s incapable of providing any help and just there to waste everyone’s time. That ends up not being the case at all. Yes, Jane is in an unfamiliar situation and as a result she struggles a bit but that doesn’t stop her. She perseveres against all odds.
Gil Birmingham plays Martin, the father of the deceased young lady. He doesn’t have nearly the screen time as Olsen or Renner but he maybe gives the best performance. It’s heartbreaking seeing him try and cope with something no one should ever have to cope with and at the same time he’s so uplifting. He has two scenes with Renner that are something else. Two actors in complete command of their craft, tugging at our heartstrings.
While the characters are great the script is a little up and down which is a bit ironic giving the Sheridan’s very recent success as a writer. My understanding is that Sheridan wrote this around the same time as Sicario and Hell or High Water and that this is the script that was closest to him. I think that could explain some of the script’s problems. Sometimes when a writer gets too close to their own work they’re afraid to deviate and make changes for the better. A big part of the film is about the loss of Cory’s daughter and she was best friends with the victim from the film. Cory never finds out how exactly her daughter died by the circumstances are very similar. Sadly this never pays off anywhere in the script. Given what we do learn about Cory’s daughter it feels like the two deaths should have been linked but that never happened. If the two deaths were going to be unrelated as they appear to be then I think Cory’s daughter shouldn’t have died in such a similar way. The grieving father aspect would have still worked, but could have been tweaked a tad.
Even with some of the script’s weaker points it still manages to build tension quite well throughout the film. There is a Mexican standoff that sort of comes out of nowhere to get you on the edge of your seat. It eventually leads to an explosive and violent shootout that is bound to knock you back some.
The way Native Americans are handled is a bit of a mixed bag. I think Sheridan’s heart was in the right place. He was attempting to tell a very important and real story involved Natives and the film does a good job casting Native American actors in these roles. On one hand he does succeed. Natives have been largely shoved to the side and ignored over the course of this country’s history. That’s apparent in the film with the FBI’s response to the situation. But then the film has the white savior issue. The two leads, the two heroes are both white and they’re the ones that save the day. The Natives in the film are victims or outsiders. That’s not to say the Native characters are just filler because they’re not. As I previously stated Birmingham is fantastic and his character is very powerful. The movie also has great performances from Graham Greene and Martin Sensmeier. It would have just been nice to see those characters play a larger role in actually solving the mystery.
Wind River has its flaws and Sheridan took a few missteps along the way. With a few tweaks here and there this could have been a true masterpiece. In the grand scheme of things these issues are fairly minor. Wind River is still a damn good movie and one of the year’s best. It’s winding neo-Western that evokes the Coen Brothers while having a very obvious and pleasant Silence of the Lambs influence. In my opinion this is a must-see.
Wind River is currently out on Blu-ray from Lionsgate Films. The Blu-ray features two deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes feature.