Sheridan’s unofficial ending to a very unofficial trilogy, Wind River may not mark his directorial debut, but it definitely solidifies him as a creative force to keep an eye on.
Wind River (2017) is a mystery thriller written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water). It stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a hunter in the white moutains of Wyoming who discovers the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille) while tracking a group of mountain lions. This brings young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) onto the scene to try and discover the circumstances of her mysterious death.
This has been described as a pseudo-conclusion to Sheridan’s three neo-western films – 2014’s Sicario, last year’s Hell or High Water (which I loved) and now Wind River. And while there’s a number of legitimate overlaps between the three, the real crux of the trilogy is that they’re three stellar movies written in quick succession by one very talented individual, and Wind River is no exception to that streak.
The story is kept extremely muted compared to the more bombastic High Water, but that is no indication that Sheridan doesn’t command the screen in a similar way. He has such a potent grip on tone and atmosphere that it ebbs through the entire picture incredibly naturally, and while River is very serious its always engaging. This is a story with much more than just excitement on its mind, and deals with themes and ideas that will be confronting to many but also extremely important to consider. The classic vigilante justice of westerns long past is brought up into stark contrast with contemporary law-making, forcing the viewer to ask some very tough moral questions of themselves. And Sheridan handles the entire directing/writing balancing act exceptionally.
The frozen wilderness of the Wyoming nature reserve rivals Sicario for its cinematography also. The endless white landscapes may be stark and harsh but are no less beautiful and elevate the desolate tone the movie is presenting even higher. The action, while scarce, is also just as well composed. Brief outbursts of extreme violence are used to full effect here much in the same way Sicario did, and while the characters do occasionally feel a little trigger happy it never loses any of its impact.
Casting-wise, lets get the joke out of the way quickly: Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch solve a murder, ha ha, how utterly hilarious. Now lets move on. This is another example of Renner proving how exceptional an actor he really is. Between the big budget action I occasionally need a reminder but his work here almost rivals his turn in The Hurt Locker in sheer impressiveness. Its subtle, steadfast, and incredibly impactful when it needs to be and a handful of scenes are more than enough to prove he’s much more than some rugged good looks (even if he has those too). In contrast his co-star sadly doesn’t far quite as well. Its not that she delivers a poor performance, but grounded drama is a bit of a stretch for Olsen and she just can’t quite match the heights of Renner much to her detriment.
The movie is not without its flaws however. The ending goes on for a little too long, a few lines of dialogue are surprisingly trite considering Sheridan’s previous work, and most prominently how the film uses flashbacks leaves quite a bit to be desired. Instead of peppering them through to elevate the intrigue, its instead used as a heavy exposition dump late into the film, and while that scene in particular is excellent it feels rather haphazard amongst the rest of the plotting. Its the first time I’m aware of that Sheridan has dabbled in non-linear storytelling and sadly its not quite the slam dunk it could’ve been.
But even aside from those few quibbles, Wind River is an exceptionally well made and executed thriller. Combining a great lead performance with starkly beautiful cinematography and a plot that engages you while also leaving you with plenty to ponder, Sheridan has finally hit that watermark for me now that I’ll see anything with his name on it. It may be a tough journey, but Wind River is definitely worth weathering the elements for.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended