WIND RIVER

One of my favorite things to do as a lover of film is keep track of the careers of budding artists. Taylor Sheridan is one of those artists. Starting out as a television actor in the 90’s, he moved onto bigger roles in popular shows like Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy. Then he made his screenwriting debut with the 2015 thriller Sicario. An incredibly tense and politically relevant Southwestern thriller, it showed that Sheridan has some talents behind the camera as well. Last year he wrote Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water, showing us again that he’s a screenwriting force to be reckoned with. Now he gets the opportunity to direct one of his own screenplays, completing his trilogy of tales of the unexplored American Frontier. 

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker who works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming. During a typical snowy day of work, he happens upon the frozen corpse of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), the daughter of an old family friend. Having recently lost his daughter in a similar fashion, he takes it upon himself to personally help out with the investigation. When news of the found body gets out, rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent in to investigate the crime. Believing it to be a homicide, Cory and Jane work with the local authorities to find Natalie’s murderer. 

I feel the biggest talent Sheridan has is his very natural screenwriting. While he may get a bit heavy handed in the message he’s trying to convey, he writes characters and stories with fantastic authenticity. He clearly has a passion for the west and wants to portray these environments and citizens as realistically as possible. Now as a director, he’s able to get more personal and communicate his ideas visually. He really knows how to set an ominous mood, with some beautiful aerial shots of the snowy environment. The harsh and cold brutality is vividly conveyed, almost becoming a character itself. You really feel this feeling of helplessness when you see nothing but a huge blanket of white snow, with little black specs moving through that represent our characters. There’s a constant sense of unease as Cory and Jane perform their investigation, as disturbing clues are revealed that lead them to their next destination. Sheridan keeps the story refreshingly simple, not wasting time on police procedures or interrogations. It’s all about the characters, and how well how he builds tension through their interactions. 

A big theme of the film, which ties it in thematically to Sicario and Hell or High Water, is the harsh realities that Native Americans still face today. Where Sicario showed the lives of people who live in Cartel controlled Mexico, and Hell or High Water the lives of the people in economically depressed Texas, Wind River primarily explores the lives of the Native American citizens on their reservation in Wyoming. Every character from the protagonists to the antagonists feel completely realistic, with everybody’s motivations being understandable. While the actions some of them take are reprehensible, you still understand why they feel the way they do and why they did what they did. When you live out in the wilderness and are surrounded by a lot of nothing, there’s not really much to do aside from get wasted with your friends and mess around. Unfortunately, that messing around causes you to do terrible things and sometimes get into trouble. The desperation and emptiness that surrounds the characters can be felt in every frame.

Ever since Sicario, it’s clear that Sheridan focuses on the characters first when writing a screenplay, making them feel like real, authentic people that live in that environment. There’s not a whole lot of exposition, but characters having simple interactions that say what they’re all about, all while still moving the story forward. Like Hell or High Water, some of the dialogue is a bit too direct in driving home the film’s point, but the authenticity is 95% there. These characters wouldn’t feel as human if it weren’t for the fantastic performers. Elizabeth Olsen is the best actor of the bunch, using a lot of her subtleties to fantastic effect. Her character isn’t used to the cold environment at all, so she’s constantly shivering, sniffling, and struggling to keep up in the snow with her cohorts. It’s these tiny things that not just bring the character more to life, but also shows how much talent Olsen has in understanding who she’s supposed to portray. 

Jeremy Renner is her co-star, and I’ve always felt he was a bit underrated, mostly because the parts he plays aren’t the best written. Well, I’m happy to say that Renner gets plenty of room to show off his prowess, especially in two fantastic monologue sequences where he shows what real grief looks like. There’s a very emotional scene between Cory and Martin, Natalie’s father who’s played by a fantastic Gil Birmingham, where Cory gives him advice on how to deal with the death of his daughter. You can see the pain in suffering behind both men’s eyes, and the words Cory gives Martin are incredibly touching. It felt like I was actually watching two friends have a conversation. The story of Cory losing his daughter is the crux of the film, forming his personal connection to the main story. Him bringing closure to Natalie’s death will bring closure to how he feels about his own daughter’s death, in which he feels partially responsible. 

Like the environment surrounding it, Wind River is incredibly bleak. It isn’t a happy film, but nor were Sicario or Hell or High Water. These are films that don’t want to just tell a satisfying story, but also have a point to make. While Sheridan can occasionally get too preachy with some occasionally cheesy dialogue, his films still offer something to think about on a narrative, thematic, and political level, while also being effectively suspenseful thrillers. Now that he’s completed his American Frontier trilogy, I can’t wait to see what other stories he has ready to tell. Perhaps his next film will be another one of the best that year has to offer.

9/10

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