After getting deserved attention for his screenplays for the bitter modern Westerns ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell or High Water’, former ‘Sons of Anarchy’ actor Taylor Sheridan returns with another new spin on that distinctly American genre. This time he’s also directing. This time it’s in the snow. This time the move tackles even trickier political ground by dealing with the ceaselessly cruel treatment of Native Americans. And this time, Sheridan stumbles slightly.
‘Wind River’ is still a pretty damn strong genre movie, but it just doesn’t quite work as well as a metaphor-laden political drama. Sheridan shows impressive work in his first effort behind the camera since a mediocre 2011 horror movie, but he’s not quite up to the standard set by the last two brilliant directorial treatments of his scripts.
The film opens like most noirish detective tales do, with a body. In this case, it’s a Native American teen who collapses in the snow after her lungs fill with frozen blood during an unbearably long run from an unknown location. She’s found by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a white boy tracker in the reservation who gets respect from the locals thanks to his extraordinary hunting abilities and Hawkeye-esque bow and arrow skills. The local detective (Graham Greene, always welcome) calls the FBI and they send the young and inexperienced agent Jane Banner (Elisabeth Olsen, giving this movie an Avenger cast count of two), who doesn’t even have a proper coat for the frosty location. She partners with Lambert and they slowly uncover the horrible events that happened to the unfortunate young woman, with plenty of symbolism to make it clear that this is also a story broadly about the treatment of the Native community within America.
As a crime movie, ‘Wind River’ cackles with wit, hard violence, and unpredictable narrative untangling. Sheridan is a veteran of writing these politicized pulp fictions now and knows how to spin a yarn. The movie has a palpable sense of dread and suspense at all times. Though the film isn’t as visually impressive as either ‘Sicario’ or ‘Hell or High Water’, Sheridan proves to be effective at nailing all the right genre beats with the occasional stylistic flourish (along with plenty of haunting drone shots of snow-covered landscapes).
The characters are written with hard-boiled grit and performed with intensity. Renner nails his wounded warrior routine (as always). Olsen provides depth and weight in an Agent Starling-lite role. The supporting Native actors are all given more depth than one might expect from this sort of project. Gil Birmingham in particular gets a chance to play a grief stricken father with such power and grace that it would have been nice for more of the film to be about him.
In fact, that’s kind of the problem with ‘Wind River’ as a whole. Despite the fact that Sheridan sensitively handles the Native issues in his screenplay and gives a few plum supporting roles to Native actors, there’s something weird about the fact that the protagonists are more blindingly white than the snowscapes. Yes, Olsen serves as an audience surrogate learning about the culture and Renner gets a back story to justify his power in the community. However, when the movie ends with a loaded statistic about missing Native American women who are rarely investigated, it’s hard not to scoff at the fact that the film preceding it offers precious little screen time or focus to Native American women. The story falls into the “white savior” genre. Even though it’s first and foremost a crime movie that shouldn’t be overburdened with identity politics, Sheridan goes out of his way to make this a movie about the painful life on reservations and the way Native people are routinely dismissed by North American society. The fact that he does so in a movie that sidelines the very people he wants to show compassion to is frustrating and a little icky.
Still, ‘Wind River’ has its heart in the right place. The delivery system might be wonky at times, but the message is worthy to sneak into a genre picture. As a murder mystery thriller, the film hits all the right beats and delivers enough left turns to be worth attention. Taylor Sheridan is little too raw as a director to elevate the material cinematically like Dennis Villenueve and David MacKenzie managed to do with his previous screenplays, but he delivers a few stellar sequences. As a B-movie, ‘Wind River’ works just fine, but Sheridan wants his B-movie thrills to have A-level subtext and he never quite gets there.