Film Review – Wind River (Second Take)
Wind River is a film that I chose to not watch the trailer for before seeing the film. I went into it blind, other than hearing a fellow audience member saying it was a crime thriller before it started. The Rotten Tomatoes score was already pretty high, so I had high hopes for it. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival at January and made its way through several other festivals before making a theatrical debut at the beginning of August.
Wind River is based on actual events. Set in rural Wyoming and in the Wind River Native American/Indian Reservation, the film revolves around a troubled US Fish and Wildlife Service hunter, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Lambert is still dealing with the loss of his daughter, who went missing and was found dead. On another hunt while tracking a trio of mountain lions in Wind River, Lambert discovers the frozen body of Natalie, a friend of his daughter’s. This sets off a flurry of events to investigate the death with the reservation police led by the sheriff, Ben (Graham Greene), and eventually an FBI agent arrives, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). More green than experienced, Banner is chided by those around her for being unprepared and questioning the effectiveness of the reservation’s authorities. It is only as they begin to work together and realize each other’s strengths that the murder begins to be solved.
Wind River is written by Taylor Sheridan and his second time directing a feature film. Based on his previous writing credits with Sicario and Hell or High Water (one of my favorite films of 2016), I expected more from this film. When I say I expected more, I mean that I assumed that it would at least be good. Something happened with Wind River, and my assumption is that it started with a bad script. The lines spoken by both Olsen and Renner are more often than not awful and resulted in some cringeworthy moments. When Renner’s Lambert speaks something along the lines of, “I’m a hunter. I hunt,” in response to a grieving father’s wish that Lambert kill the murderer, it is something that I would rather be hearing from a Lifetime television movie, not a feature film with a great cast. With a bad script, I can’t put much blame on the actors. The acting does come off as same level of awful as the script, but when actors don’t have much to work with for their parts, this is the result.
The film picks up in quality as the mystery of murderer is beginning to be solved, but it then devolves into a display of machismo that places the only woman, Banner, in the middle. She is, of course, the level-headed one, professional as always. She becomes the authoritarian and settles the impending situation. The last act of the film makes the first part look like a quiet, babbling brook as the chaos ensues and mystery is about to be solved.
(This paragraph contains spoilers for a surprise appearance of an actor.) The brief, shining light of Wind River is the appearance of Jon Bernthal. Bernthal (previously seen in Sheridan’s Sicario) plays an important part in a scene that probably only lasts about ten minutes. It tells what really happened to Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), and thus solves what truly happened to her. His acting is this scene is better than any other in the entire film. The fact that it is depressing and horrible only adds to the fact that he took such a scene and gave his character a rounded story and made you want to root for him. The cutaway and editing for this scene is probably the best part of the film, minus Bernthal and the stunning scenery seen throughout the film.
Credit must also be given to Sheridan and this film for employing so many Native American actors. Not knowing it was set on a reservation before the film started, it is a pleasure to see such familiar faces like Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves), Gil Birmingham (Twilight, Hell or High Water), Julia Jones (The Twilight Saga), and Tantoo Cardinal (Legends of the Fall). It gives a sense of authenticity to the story being told, and the film does not sugar-coat how the Native Americans live on reservations. While this is not a political film in any way, it does illustrate the struggles and problems faced by those that live on reservations, partially cut off from the rest of the US.
Wind River is a compelling story, but with Taylor Sheridan’s script, it turned into a crime drama that borders on hokey. The story in another scriptwriter’s hands could have been more well-thought out and have conversations between characters that you don’t come off as embarrassing and not worthy of the screen time. I don’t quite know what happened since Sheridan’s last two scripts were fantastic. Maybe with knowledge that he was directing this story also, his creative viewpoint changed. I’m amazed he won an award at Cannes for directing. The film’s harsh environment with mountains and snow make it a beautiful film to look at, but it is the script and the effect of a bad script on acting that make this film one that I would recommend renting versus paying to see in a theatre. Even someone like Taylor Sheridan is able to make a bad film, and Wind River is bad.