Wind River is a murder mystery cast in the mold of a neo-Western. It's a harrowing thrill ride worth your time.
“A chilling tale..” is more than just a cliche descriptor for Taylor Sheridan’s newest film, Wind River. Named after a Wyoming mountain range, this is a film that doesn’t waste an opportunity to make you feel cold. The color pallet is overwhelmingly white, and if the characters aren’t bundled up in a thick winter coat, it is a rarity. But the film’s fascination with low temperature is more than just a trick to unsettle the audience. It’s also pivotal to the film’s central theme of dealing with hardship. The struggle we see unfold onscreen in dealing with the elements is just a physical representation of what is going on inside the character’s minds. If Sheridan’s purpose with Wind River was to give his audience an unsettling disposition on multiple levels, he largely succeeds.
Wind River is Sheridan’s second feature film as director, but it actually has more in common with the films he has contributed most recently as screenwriter. Those who have seen Sicario and Hell or High Water will notice a lot of similarities with Sheridan’s latest film. Like those films, Wind River is approached as a Neo-Western. It takes place in a rural area, but trades the issues of living in the old west for modern complications and socioeconomic difficulties. It uses multiple perspectives to paint a poignant picture of the hardships currently plaguing many underrepresented pockets of modern American society.
Like westerns of the past, Wind River’s characters are loners. Each of them are isolated in their own way because of who they are, the struggles they’ve been through, and the decisions they’ve made along the path of life. In both of Sheridan’s aforementioned previous films as well as this one, there is a conflict between the main characters, even between those that are working towards the same goal. Sheridan likes to establish most of his characters as experienced, but then he brings in one character that is seeing the situation for the first time. It is through the efforts of this character that the audience can relate, which makes the environment of the film more impactful even if it feels a bit forced (which I’ll discuss later).
In Wind River, the newbie is Jane Banner, an FBI agent played by Elizabeth Olson. Banner is called to a Wyoming Indian reservation to investigate a body found by a local tracker, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Lambert is no stranger to the harsh realities of living on the reservation, having lost his own daughter to an unknown assailant years before. The body he finds is of his daughter’s best friend, and he feels a commitment to find the person(s) responsible as much as an effort to solve this crime as to get some sort of closure for his own loss. Banner, on the other hand, is completely outside of her element. She comes to rely on Lambert and his abilities to help her do her job.
While the unsolved disappearances and deaths of Native American women on reservations are a troublingly common occurrence, the film makes an even more frightening point in that there is not a lot being done about this. Without jurisdiction on Native lands, state and county law enforcement are unable to assist, which leaves the task to seriously undermanned and underfunded tribal police. Into this situation, Jane Banner is the headstrong force trying to make a difference against the injustice. This results in her doing things that FBI agents probably wouldn’t do in real life, and makes Wind River a “show and tell” type of film; telling the truth of a real world crisis, but doing so in a showy, entertainment-first kind of way.
Sicario and Hell or High Water both took a similar approach. Despite the shocking truths that these films all reveal about the world we live in, Sheridan’s decision to tell these stories with a bit of flair has to be considered a bit controversial. However, films that are simultaneously poignant and entertaining are rare these days, and so I think Sheridan’s approach is largely successful. In fact, it would not be out of the question to see similarities in Sheridan’s work to what Quentin Tarantino has done in his films. Like Sheridan, Tarantino builds his films on top of discussions about important socioeconomic topics. Many of Tarantino’s influences are the types of films that Sheridan is working to emulate. Traditional westerns, for example, gave us a glimpse of the lawless reality that was the great frontier, and weren’t afraid to play the violence card in order to ramp up the intensity and keep the audience at the edge of their seats.
Unlike Tarantino, Sheridan’s delivery is not blatantly flamboyant. The aforementioned commitment to cold imagery in both picture and tone is a powerful, but somber one. The shots of Renner’s character trudging through snow and riding his way through the breathtaking winterscapes (including snowmobile montages!) helps to establish the character’s isolation and emotional fortitude. As director, Sheridan keeps the film moving at a quick pace. It never seems to linger too long in one place, which helps to keep the plot thrilling and exciting. The quick cuts and handicam footage give the film an adventurous tone. This helps to prevent the film from being a complete downer (although it is plenty sad as is), which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your perspective.
But for everything that Sheridan does right as director, he also makes some mistakes. At times, the film feels so eager to push forward that it leaves some things behind. Renner’s character, for example, has a son who is prominently featured in the first part of the film, but becomes largely forgotten towards the end. The investigative tone of the film makes it focused on small details, yet despite this there are still some plot holes and inconsistencies. The way the plot unfolds also seems entirely too convenient. The man who would be most helpful in solving the crime also happens to be the man who is among the most motivated to see it solved. Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent is established as being outside of her element, yet her efforts are what yield results that the more experienced and knowledgeable officials in the film had yet to achieve.
Overall, Wind River’s combination of thrills and emotionally moving moments make for the type of effective film that we don’t see too often. Those who enjoyed Sicario and Hell or High Water will find a lot of similarities to appreciate. As director, Sheridan may have made a few minor mistakes, but he clearly has just as much talent for telling a story from behind the camera as he does on paper. The excellent cast lives up to expectations, and the film’s frozen landscape is the perfect backdrop for the type of story it tells. Despite some hiccups, Wind River does in fact live up to the connotation of “a chilling tale…”