Director: Taylor Sheridan
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal
Runtime: 111 Minutes
The mightily impressive writings of Taylor Sheridan have over the last couple of years displayed a breathlessly sharp perspective on the evolution of the archetypical western in 21st century America. His unwavering attention paid to the destruction of traditional ideals, the luridness of real-world violence and gunplay and the systematic demoralisation and exploitation of working-class citizens or otherwise has vibrated through his recent filmography through the lenses of strong and capable filmmakers.
Wind River is on initial inspection a nuts and bolts murder mystery with something owed to contemporary Scandinavian noir – with its isolated snowy backdrop and foreboding sensation of baring eyes on a desolate landscape of near lawlessness – this is a story that desires to put its characters first as opposed to the solution of the mystery. The darkest point being made is that sometimes the simplest answer is usually the correct one and that the injustices at play are operating beyond the hands of individuals.
Said injustices regard the ambivalence of the US government and law enforcement to otherwise horrifying crimes being enacted against young women because of their association with Indian Reservations such as Wyoming’s Wind River. The harsh living conditions and isolation from the cities and towns leave a predicament where only one young and inexperienced FBI agent (Elisabeth Olsen) is sent to investigate the crime. The shock value of this grizzly tale is woven through the interactions and reactions of characters to the state of affairs and the people involved, as seen predominantly through the eyes of Jeremy Renner’s Wildlife Service agent, Cory Lambert.
The difficult paradigm of seeing the world of the modern Native American plight from the perspective of a white male protagonist is something to be acknowledged, but the film acquits itself rather well with Renner’s character as not only a sympathiser and local himself, but having his own very personal ties to the people through his family. Renner is quietly excellent in the role, playing it like a distant relative of the kind of heroes usually found in spaghetti westerns, and he carries the mount of the film effortlessly even against the heavyweights of Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham. Olsen gets less to do mainly because her character is rather thinly drawn, but with what she’s given Olsen delivers with phenomenal range as her reactions slowly build her character.
At times Wind River is a really gruelling and dark watch because of its handling of oppressions and inherent racism still abound throughout North America, specifically where it regards the details of the rape of the young reservation girl left to die in the snow. The scene illustrating her parents as they struggle to deal with her loss in different ways behind closed doors is enough to break anyone’s heart, but a flashback sequence that actually depicts the offence is a so matter of fact that it’s thoroughly difficult to watch. It’s also one of the only sequences of its kind in an otherwise straight-laced narrative, which leads to one of the productions larger issues.
If there’s a weakness to his first major directorial endeavour (the first being a hastily made saw knock-off, Vile) then it’s down to the power of the filmmaking. While his efforts with cinematographer Ben Richards allow the film a bleak, chilly look and some beautiful scenery shots – including a very intense gunfight – the atmosphere doesn’t quite feel as all-encompassing when compared to the efforts of Denis Villeneuve or David Mackenzie in their translations of his work in Sicario and Hell or High Water. Be it down to the edit, or his more point-and-shoot approach to sequences beyond key scenes of emotional distress, his attention to the specifics of the screenplay as written leaves much of the film’s thematic overtures little with room to breathe or expand. Thus relegating much of the film’s contextual overtones and intentions to a single set of cue cards in the film’s final moments.
While there is something lacking from a cinematic perspective, and an introspection that only feels as deep as when its explicitly stated by characters, the final point that the film is getting across as it reminds the audience of its real-life influences is still one hell of a punch that will leave many with something genuinely discomforting to think about. His work remains a bleak, devastating representation of the present and unspoken darkness’s still at work in American society against the marginalised and the oppressed, and closes a deep and timely loose trilogy of the new America.