Wind River is the third film in as many years from the mind of Taylor Sheridan. In 2015, Denis Villeneuve directed his screenplay for Sicario (brilliant). Last year, it was David Mackenzie at the helm for his Hell or High Water script (excellent). Now, Sheridan has gotten the chance to direct his own words with Wind River; it may very well be, somehow, the best of the three.
Sheridan’s story takes us to a Native American reservation in the snowbound mountains of Wyoming, where a young woman has been discovered dead, barefoot in the snow. The man who discovered her is Cory, played by a perfectly weathered and weary Jeremy Renner. Cory is a contracted game hunter in the area, and he has tragic ties to this dead woman. The reservation chief, Ben (Graham Greene), has limited resources, and the green FBI agent who’s sent to investigate, simply because she was nearby, is more eager than she is adept.
The agent is Jane, and she is played by Elizabeth Olsen in a performance that may be easy to overlook. This is Renner’s film, and he is pitch perfect as a man who has come to terms with a tragedy that has shaped his life, but a tragedy he carries with him nonetheless. Cory’s life, and the life he still shares with his ex wife and young son, is part of the tapestry of this land the country has seemingly forgotten.
The reservation here is as much a character as the dried up Texas towns were in Hell or high Water, or the Mexican border in Sicario. It is a harsh, unforgiving land, soaked in despair and littered with Native American men and women who never even had a chance to find a path to success in America. Drugs and poverty pollute the majestic landscape that surrounds them, and as Cory, Ben, and Jane begin their investigation, some of that despondent society rears its ugly head.
Much like the previous two Sheridan films, Wind River is a story which builds on the emotional depth and complexity of its characters, then unleashes all manner of hell in fleeting moments of unbearable tension, violence, and resolution. And the emotional thrust of the film doesn’t only belong to Renner. With only a few words, we understand Ben’s plight – which is helped along by a terrific performance from the criminally underused Graham Greene. And even though Jane is an outsider, Sheridan allows her character to do more than simply push the plot forward; we see her thinking, calculating, adjusting to this foreign world, making split-second decisions and getting pulled into the history of these people herself. The parents of the dead girl have mere moments in this story, but those moments are as weighted as anything in the entire film.
We are immersed in this world, caught up with these people living on the outskirts of modern society in a place the rest of the country left behind; and when the violence comes it is with such searing intensity and undeniable consequence, we cannot help but clench our teeth and fists. Without giving anything away, there are certainly a few harrowing scenes, and the way they are spread across the picture creates a brilliant sense of pacing.
There may be a few loose ends in Wind River, but these details don’t steal away the overwhelming impact of this picture; not in any way. It is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and proof that from now on, Taylor Sheridan should be allowed to shoot his own screenplays. The men from the other two did tremendous jobs, make no mistake, but if he has this in him as a director, why bother binging anyone else in?
Whatever the case, let’s keep this pattern of “a Taylor Sheridan story per year” going.