Taylor Sheridan has been putting together quite the resume recently with superb writing on Sicario, one of my favorites from 2015, as well as writing and directing the solid modern western/crime drama Hell or High Water last year. Trust me when I tell you the hot streak continues with Wind River
Wind River takes us into the story of Cory Lambert (played by Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent assigned to the Wind River Indian Reservation. We are taken through some of his daily routines, protecting livestock from wolves and his interactions with the town. All of that comes to halt upon finding a frozen body in the snow, prompted an investigation with the local police and required a FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), to be called to the scene. Here, the film showcasing Lambert’s expertise earlier pays dividends as Banner is forced to lean on his experience in very practical ways and that makes sense to the audience. What follows is not simply a quick crime drama; River dives into a tragic real-life situation happening right now giving you plenty to think about afterwards.
**It should also be noted going forward that this film does deal with a rape and displays it on screen. While it’s not repeatedly shown (only one short scene towards the end), you may be uncomfortable with that so I’m obviously not going to describe that, but be aware of that if you go to watch it.**
I’ve seen Renner so much in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Mission Impossible movies lately that I tend to forget that’s not how he got his start. It’s rather refreshing to see him tackling roles like this again. While I don’t think he’ll get any award attention for this one, Renner did give a solid performance that should be recognized. I also thoroughly enjoyed Olsen’s turn as novice FBI agent, Jane Banner, in direct comparison to Renner’s portrayal as the experienced local. It reminded me of Hilary Swank’s performance in Insomnia and surprisingly featured a similar number of moral quandaries. I’m also really glad this movie didn’t devolve into the jurisdictional crap that is sometimes used for cheap drama between characters. River was smart to make Banner aware of what she didn’t know and humble enough to admit, rather than attempting to take the reins of a situational she knew nothing about. Likewise, they didn’t make Lambert (Renner) out to be some superhero either. Rather, they ensured his expertise allowed him to be the right person at the movie’s critical moments
Jon Bernthal also makes a quick appearance and I had been looking forward to more from him since he was going to be involved. For his role’s purpose, the short length makes sense, but I’m always going to be disappointed when a great actor is under-utilized.
The Feel Of Wyoming
Sheridan seems to have inherited a few things from his time working with Denis Villenueve (director of Sicario) or maybe he’s always had a knack for great shots. The selections in River are absolutely gorgeous and really help immerse you into this snowy setting of Wyoming. Sheridan does a great job of establishing the small details, such as Lambert’s routine and expertise, contributing to the overall grounded feeling. The environment is almost a character in its own right and Sheridan does a great job using it to his advantage. Notably, we this strongly in the first death scene, Lambert’s hunting moments, the challenges of investigating in ever-changing snow conditions, and a laundry list of situations and setbacks (your local law enforcement office in a warmer climate probably never deals with). These moments ultimately add up to a feeling of despair during the entire affair that works to drive a point at the very end.
There’s a flashback that happens in the last act and I have to note how effective and well timed the transition into it is. This isn’t just the film nerd in me talking, you will definitely know what I’m talking about when you see it. It was a clever withhold of information from earlier and choosing to place it that late serves to ratchet the tension in the final showdown. This kind of forethought helps River from becoming just another unmemorable crime drama and cements it as a solid addition.
The Underlining Story
The true beauty of Wind River is how it takes Lambert’s past history in the town to help explain and inform the current tragedy going on. It’s a commonly used trope to have a character’s past influence the events of a film or the slow reveal of their history help us understand current events. Sometimes, it can be way too flat or predictable to have serious impact. Wind River does suffer from predictability in that regard, but where it chooses to take it is what makes this film stand apart. The real-life situation I referenced at the start refers to undocumented assaults Native American women face on a regular basis. The film effectively communicates this terrible reality through Lambert’s back story with his own daughter, the victim he finds in the snow, and the victims mentioned in the film’s last shot. This final addition, referring to FBI crime statistics, informs us to the actual situation going on and leaves the audience grounded in a harsh and true reality.
It’s honestly a pretty fair depiction of the grim and cold outlook the characters in this film face. Sheridan is smart to never really let this identity break with a moment of humor going to far or providing too much optimism. Banner and Lambert’s first interactions help foster that along as Lambert has a understandable easier time interacting with the townsfolk than Banner does as the outside. The moral code they deploy also helps create a sharp contrast between Banner and the town, showcasing how her ideals will not be welcomed or valued immediately…or ever.
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I loved that Sheridan also spent some time highlighting differences between cultures. Lambert showcases a deep understanding of issues plaguing the town and the tribes living there. Banner has difficulty adjusting initially, but eventually understands there are some things best left alone. She is wise enough to know when she’s out of her depth though she still makes some critical mistakes which the film uses to move the plot or highlight another cultural difference. These moments could have been forced or heavy handed, but they ultimately serve to continue the grounded feel that is felt throughout this entire film.
In many ways, Wind River is a conventional crime drama, but just saying that is a huge disservice to the incredibly smart and engaging moments Taylor Sheridan is able to craft. He wrote an incredibly tight script and squeezed as much energy as he could out it, boosted by solid performances from Renner and Olsen. As a audience member, you are certainly going to walk away impacted with the story and feeling Sheridan creates.
Wind River: 8 out 1o
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