In 2015, Dennis Villenueve’s Sicario introduced audiences to the grounded, hyper-realistic world of Taylor Sheridan. Then in his sophomore outing, Sheridan delivered Hell or High Water, one of the most straightforward, fully realized westerns in recent years. And now Sheridan steps into the directors chair for this first time to round out his “American Frontier” trilogy. The idea behind this trilogy was to examine aspects of the American west that haven’t been visited before. Sicario looked at the drug war, Hell or High Water a family of ranchers in Texas, and Wind River takes aim at crime on Native American reservations. Thankfully, Sheridan transitions into the director role seamlessly, and offers up another sobering, intense, masterclass of film.
It’s hard to say that this film has “style.” So often those terms are reserved for auteur directors; directors whose films can usually be identified by looking at a single frame. While he lacks the distinctive surrealist pop style of Wes Anderson, or dark nihilism of David Fincher, Sheridan has a very “lived in” feel, a grounded tone that permeates each of his films. The world or the Wind River Reservation is a brutal one. It may be a cliché, but the setting truly is a character all of its own. Characters are constantly battling freezing temperatures, they are forced to act quickly so they don’t lose tracks in the snow, they have to think creatively because of how far removed they are from the rest of civilization. Sheridan presents Wind River, Wyoming as a harsh environment not to be taken lightly.
Wind River’s biggest strength is its no nonsense story. The film opens on the death of a young Native American girl, and we’re quickly introduced to the two who track down her killer. This isn’t a slow film, but it’s in no rush to get from point A to point B. The rate at which the script teases out and reveals information about what happened that tragic night is nothing if not masterful. Right when the detectives seem to have hit a dead end, Sheridan gives just enough information to keep hope alive.
There are no twists, no gimmicks, and for the most part, its a completely linear narrative. This movie isn’t out to outsmart anyone. Sheridan knows the strength of his story, and he presents it with out any distractions. There is, however, one incredible use of flashback. Hitchcock once said if you show a table blowing up, you have surprise. If you show the bomb being set under the table and wait, you have suspense. Sheridan uses one particular scene to hide the bomb, while the audience sits in agony waiting for it to go off.
This is a harrowing story. The final frame displays a statistic about crime on Native American reservations, and that final button creates such a sense of helpless injustice. This heartbreaking feeling lingers well into the end credits, there won’t be much movement in the seats when the title card roles, just a silent stillness while viewers contemplate what they just saw. Wind River delivers a powerful message about Indigenous peoples and their communities not being given proper care by the government. While the message packs a punch, Sheridan never lets it become preachy, the story simply speaks for itself.
Staring as the fish-out-of-water FBI agent, Elizabeth Olson gives an incredible performance. Olson’s character is driven, clearly passionate about bringing the killer to justice, but rigid in her approach to doing so. Not much is offered about her back story, but Olson is able to fill her with personality. She doesn’t fall into the silent badass or damsel in distress pitfalls, she is a strong, feminine, woman, driven in equal measure by her duty and her emotional code. This role, combined with her turn in Ingrid Goes West, Olson is quickly turning into a Hollywood powerhouse.
The real star of the show is Jeremy Renner. Renner first gained critical acclaim with his performance in The Hurt Locker, and blew everyone away with his supporting role in The Town. Since then, he’s been thrown into a variety of action franchises and comedic roles, never being able to fully sink his teeth into a meaty, dramatic role. This is a return to form of sorts, reminding everyone that he’s more than just the comedic relief of the Avengers, he’s an actor who demands to be taken seriously.
Renner plays a hunter who ranchers hire to drive off predators from killing their livestock, and he uses those skills to help Olson hunt down their killer. Driven by traumatic events from his past, he’s captivating in his mission of bringing this murderer to justice. This is a subtle, toned down performance, but Renner has such power and raw talent. He’s able to do more with a word than most could with a monologue. Renner has been nominated for two Academy Awards in years past, and he is absolutely deserving of another nomination, if not win, for Wind River. This is the best performance of his career.
Brutal as it may be, this is beautiful to look at. The film’s director of photography, Ben Richardson, displays a masterful knowledge of how to use cinematography to enhance storytelling. During tense sequences, the camera is shaky, pulled in tight, putting the viewer right in the middle of the action, and hold long in the more conversational scenes, letting the tension ratchet up. The most effective shots, however, are when Richardson will cut wide, the landscape in the background dwarfing the characters, showing how isolated and outmatched our heroes are. It cannot be overstated how gorgeous and breathtaking this film is.
At it’s core, Wind River is an old west detective story set in a brutal, modern day environment. It’s so refreshing to see a straightforward story that treats its characters and audience with respect. Much like Sicario and Hell or High Water before, Sheridan has written a brilliant, simple in story, complex in execution, thrilling feature. He also fits into the directors chair seamlessly to deliver a movie that can hold its own with the rest of the “American Frontier” trilogy. For a feature directorial debut, Wind River knocks it out of the park.
Rating: 4.75 — Phenomenal