It’s no ‘Thunderheart.’
Taylor Sheridan has had a pretty solid couple of years with his scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water earning well-deserved raves and critical acclaim for the stories and characters he creates. The reward seems to have been the opportunity to make his directorial debut, but oddly the well-acted, beautifully-shot Wind River is held back in a major way by one thing – Sheridan’s script is cold garbage.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a wildlife officer working the ruggedly gorgeous landscape of rural Wyoming as a tracker and hunter of predatory animals. His latest effort, the search for a supposed cattle-killing cougar, leads him to the body of a young woman who appears to have been assaulted and left to run to her death barefoot for miles across the frozen fields and mountains. The body’s location on a Native American property leads to an FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) being dispatched to investigate, and as the reservation’s six man police force is already stretched thin across land the size of Rhode Island she asks Cory to assist her.
He agrees both because it’s what he does – tracking animals that need to be put down – but also because he knows all too well the pain of losing a child. His daughter had been friends with the newly deceased and even died a couple years prior under similar circumstances, but don’t worry about that possible connection. Sheridan doesn’t.
Wind River has all the makings of a solidly engaging mystery, but again and again Sheridan makes choices that are lazy, unfortunate, or just plain insulting. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover this was an old script, one he pulled from a bottom drawer after securing the directing gig, and one he barely bothered to touch up. The single element that probably received a rewrite is an encounter that pits a partially-blinded Jane armed and searching for a bad guy in constrained quarters – a probable nod to one of Sicario’s more tense and suspenseful sequences (or more likely to the film’s biggest inspiration, The Silence of the Lambs).
The story itself suffers as the film unfolds in a straight line with little interest in tension, mystery, or suspense. Information is acquired, they approach their quarry, the end. There’s little question as to the truth behind the murder, and viewers are never in a position to wonder if this or that person is responsible. As things are ramping up the film suddenly shifts into a flashback which both kills our increasing pulse rates and simply lays out the truth in unceremonious fashion. The resolution is essentially a dull one, and it can’t help but feel like an utter waste of the landscape and the reservation reality at the film’s disposal. Sheridan tosses some time to the native population’s heavy drug use and beliefs, but it feels more like filler than actual character interest as the heroes of this reservation-set tale are the whites.
That’s bad enough to make the film as generic a thriller as you could find, but Wind River sinks further in its approach to women. They exist as sex objects, people to be pitied, and lesser characters designed solely in reaction to the men around them. It’s one thing for side characters to get the shaft, but Jane is presented as a woman who clearly can’t handle her job. Nearly every manly man – all the men, good or bad – here suggests as much with dialogue or a glance, and Sheridan follows suit through many of her actions and words. In an era where “mansplaining” has become a common refrain, the film has Cory do just that three separate times saying “Here, let me show you” each time.
The movie quite literally makes it clear that women’s magazines are more her speed.
The script’s widespread weaknesses are disappointing on their face but even more so in light of the film’s actual strengths starting with Sheridan’s direction. He and cinematographer Ben Richardson capture the beautiful desolation of this mesmerizing but unforgiving landscape, and there’s nary an unattractive frame to be found. He also knows how to craft an action sequence with a sharp eye for choreography and perspective.
Renner is terrific, and while I’m beginning to suspect he has some manner of “sharpshooter” clause in his contracts he convinces both as a man familiar with combat and heartbreak. Olsen is a fine actor too, but she’s saddled with such poor writing that it’s nearly impossible for her to escape its downward pull. Supporting turns by Gil Birmingham and Graham Greene charm as the land’s — and the film’s — second-class citizens, but Birmingham still manages to find the film’s rare emotional beats.
Wind River is a generic and uninteresting thriller that lacks the strengths of Sheridan’s celebrated first and second features. Watch those two, or maybe give 1992’s Thunderheart a long overdue re-watch instead.