Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) makes his directorial debut with Wind River, a final chapter in a sort of thematically connected crime saga, of which the previous two installments were helmed by notable foreign auteurs (Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively). Sheridan’s handling of his own material, while serviceable, isn’t quite as strident and assured as previous navigations of narratives pitting insidious criminals against shadowy, labyrinthine law enforcement bureaucracies. A handsome cast fleshes out this cliché heavy murder mystery which dances out over the frozen snowscapes of the eponymous Native American reservation. Much like the cinematic flourishes of David Ayer, Sheridan excels at peppering moments of extremely effective violence throughout an increasingly maudlin investigation in which most of the key players have hidden motivations for their fortuitous response efforts in trying to discover who amongst them killed a young Native American woman.
US Fish & Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an incredibly skilled hunter. An outsider in the Wind River Native American Reservation in Wyoming ever since he divorced his wife (Julia Jones) after the tragic death of their teenage daughter three years prior, he is stunned to find the body of a young woman in the wilderness, who was best friends with and died under the same mysterious circumstances as his own child. The FBI sends in rookie agent Julie Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who clearly has never worked a homicide investigation before. Since Banner is unable to get her agency to send help, she hires Lambert as a tracker, with only reservation police head Ben (Graham Greene) to help guide her through a swiftly unraveling investigation.
If Sicario’s narrative hinged on the complexities of intersecting law enforcement agencies requiring the recruitment of a naive rookie to establish a convoluted loophole, Wind River paints the reservation as a no man’s land with the opposite effect. Laws are blurred and alliances are blindly made between the reservation police, federal law enforcement, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. At the same time, the use of the fledgling female agent played by Emily Blunt in Sicario is an obvious counterpoint for Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner. But nearly all of Olsen’s sequences are robbed of potency due to distractions with her characterization as well as the youthfulness of the performer.
While Jane Banner is supposed to be amateurish yet impassioned, several outbursts, including a painfully staged face-off with the coroner, read as incredibly false, and like several illogical instances with the earlier Blunt character, it would seem Sheridan may be less capable in developing sound personas for women ensconced in homosocial environments. The same goes for the bitter ex-wife of Renner’s character played by Julia Jones, whose infrequent appearances seem too belabored, too cryptic. Renner’s methodical hunter is seen on several occasions to guide and take over for Olsen’s admittedly inexperienced FBI agent, which only enhances the nagging white male savior problem in Wind River, since even Graham Greene’s crusty police chief seems overwhelmed by the unparalleled skills of Renner. Gil Birmingham, who had a memorable role in Hell or High Water, while granted several potent exchanges, also plays like a cypher against the heroism of the white hunter.
While at least Renner’s character, whose uneasy inclusion in the Native American community is begrudgingly referenced by the drug addled brother of the dead girl, is not made to be mixed-race in the same way Val Kilmer’s character in 1992’s Thunderheart was concocted, Sheridan’s film still recalls the old Hollywood hat trick of prizing the perspective of a white male protagonist unnecessarily. Still, despite Wind River’s misfortune of being compared to the previous films Sheridan penned, it’s an enjoyable, sometimes beautifully crafted genre piece. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide a phenomenal score for the film, filled with whispering voices which sometimes filter into a sequence as if riding in on the back of the wind and DP Ben Richardson, while capturing an awful lot of snowmobiles flying through the snow, also manages a fitting sense of isolation in the elements for its ambitious trio of crime fighters.
While all the metaphors concerning Renner’s skills as a hunter protecting the flock from wolves, (which creates some problematic readings for the ‘helpless’ women in the community and the twin killings), begin to feel a bit heavy handed, Sheridan borrows from Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs for the film’s most palpable and intensely effective moment when it unveils the exact circumstances of the murdered woman’s demise (and gives Joe Bernthal one of the most effective onscreen bits of his career). More predictable than it is a disappointment, Wind River may not be incredibly nuanced, but is more often than not enjoyable.
Reviewed on January 21 at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres Program. 111 Mins.