Film Review – Wind River
After penning the fantastic Sicario (2015) and the equally great Hell or High Water (2016), Taylor Sheridan has taken up the directing reigns in Wind River (2017). Tonally, it remains consistent with what Sheridan has been associated with – crime thrillers usually set near the fringes of society. This time around, he narrows his focus to a Native American Reservation deep in the heart of Wyoming.
If there’s one thing that Sheridan is good at, it’s depicting a sense of place. The harsh countryside of Wyoming is barren and lonely. Ben Richardson’s cinematography captures the snowy landscapes with wide-open shots that are both beautiful and treacherous. The weather is cruelly unrelenting, even in the middle of spring our characters have to wear heavy coats and thick boots. We’re put in this environment for two reasons. The first is to accentuate the fact that the inhabitants are isolated, it’s explained that any ambulance response or police presence is at least an hour away. People often have to make due on their own, whether it’s against the weather or each other. The second is to shed light on the crimes that perpetuate these areas. Title cards tell us that people commonly go missing in these locations, especially young Native American women.
And that is what kicks off Sheridan’s plot. Cory (Jeremy Renner) is a game hunter, who spends his time patrolling the region making sure predators don’t come down from the mountains to pick off the town’s livestock. One day, he comes across a dead body lying in the snow. The body – which has been beaten and raped – is that of a local Native woman, someone who Cory is familiar with. This leads to an investigation headed by an up and coming FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen), along with the town sheriff (Graham Greene) and Cory, who knows the area in and out and is the best tracker available.
Sheridan lays out the process of the investigation in a straightforward manner. In fact, the structure of the plot is almost too plain. The three of them go through the motions of a police procedural without much in the way of surprises. They follow clues, interview persons of interest, and slowly come to the truth bit by bit. While this does have a realistic feel, it doesn’t add much drama to the narrative. It also doesn’t help that this is yet another repeat of the same premise we’ve gotten in countless thrillers. The “Dead Girl” set up is a tired cliché in this genre, and it’s a shame that Sheridan and the rest of the production didn’t bring anything new to it.
It’s not that there wasn’t an opportunity to. If we step back for a moment and examine the story, we notice that it has a lot of similarities to Sicario. In both, we have a young and fairly inexperienced agent (Emily Blunt in Sicario, Olsen in Wind River), coming into contact with a rugged character that is good at what they do (Benicio Del Toro in Sicario, Renner in Wind River) to help solve a crime (the drug trade/a murder). Even the Del Toro and Renner characters share a traumatic past that informs much of the decisions they do in the present.
But Sicario is the far better picture in both theme and execution. Sicario examined the morality of good and evil – helmed by one of the best directors in the business (Denis Villeneuve). Sheridan appears as though he still trying to find his identity. The biggest weakness in Wind River is Elizabeth Olsen’s character. Agent Banner represents the audience as the perspective coming into this situation unaware of how things operate. While there was a chance for her to adapt to this situation and evolve out of it, Banner is too passive to be a multi-dimensional character. Although part of the FBI, she is often placed as though she were trailing Cory, who stands out as the narrative’s true driving force. We get many scenes developing his background while we learn next to nothing about her. She is reluctant while he takes action. Upon closer inspection, Banner really has no other purpose than to act as a listener to Cory’s emotional baggage. This is a perfect example showing that just because a character is given a gun and gets to shoot people, that does not necessarily make them interesting.
There’s also a clunkiness in how the action is staged. Cory is so perfect as an outdoorsman that he can sneak right up behind someone and catch them off guard, even though his target is in the middle of an open field. I’m not sure Batman is that stealthy. There’s also an abrupt shift between static scenes and scenes of violence. A group of people can be talking to each other normally and a second later they have guns drawn in a stand off, yelling at each other at the top of their lungs. The shift is jarring, not enough time is given to build the suspense to a fever pitch – Sheridan opts to go from zero to one hundred in the blink of an eye. It was so noticeable that the audience I was with chuckled at how sudden the shifts came.
Wind River is a good, but not great film. It treads an all too familiar path, but there’s a lot of promise showing at the seams. As a writer, Taylor Sheridan has already proven himself. As a director, I consider this somewhat of a practice round. Once his skill at direction catches up to his talent at writing, look out world.