Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has come a long way since playing a supporting character in the first three seasons of Sons of Anarchy. With his screenwriting debut, Sicario, he showed audience that the revisionist Western was itself due for revision, throwing his characters into a moral gray area the likes of which Hollywood hadn't seen since the 70s. He's teamed with directors with striking visual sense - Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie for last year's superlative Hell or High Water - to produce some of the most exciting action films of the decade. Now Sheridan's in the director's chair for the first time and earns his spot there with Wind River, another tale of law and lawlessness in perhaps America's most forgotten area, a Native American reservation.
Despite the film's setting, which is in and around the eponymous reservation in central Wyoming, the protagonist is Cory Lambert, played by Jeremy Renner. I point out this fact because it is unfortunate that a film that is so sympathetic towards the brutish lifestyle into which its predominantly Native American cast have been historically forced has to feature a white man in the lead role. I chalk this up to the film's small, $11 million budget and the militia of credited producers: this one wouldn't have made it to theaters without Renner's presence, to say nothing of Elizabeth Olsen as his co-lead. If these are the sacrifices that must be made in order for these stories to be told, then so be it.
Lambert is a hunter and tracker who is responsible for sniping the various predators who terrorize local livestock. We first encounter him swathed in white camouflage, scoping and dispatching a detachment of wolves that are eyeing a flock of sheep. The metaphor is hardly lost on us, particularly once it sinks in that the reason for Lambert's estrangement from his Native American ex-wife (Julia Jones) is the death of their teenage daughter, Emily, three years earlier. While helping his erstwhile father-in-law flush out some mountain lions who have killed a yearling, Lambert finds the snowbound body of a different teen girl: it's that of Natalie, a local Native American girl who happened to be Emily's best friend. She's barefoot, underdressed, and bloodied up in disturbing places.
The body's also situated in the reservation, leaving the jurisdiction to the FBI. This being a remote area that has learned to fend for itself, the local police chief (Graham Greene) is sent Jane Banner (Olsen), a greenhorn g-woman who comes to Wind River by way of Las Vegas. Due to the specific circumstances of Natalie's death, which cannot technically be called a murder, Banner is the only resource the FBI is willing to spare. She enlists Lambert's help in investigating what is obviously a homicide, his tracking skills and familiarity with the territory pairing well with Banner's authority and persistence.
The volatile weather conditions are a literal stand-in for the hostility with which the locals face the pair, two white people looking for answers from a society who expects only abuse from folks like them. The film poses tough questions about the nature of the relationship between the Native American locals and the white people who intrude upon them, as well as what a history of subjugation has sown in terms of resentment and crushing poverty. Wind River is a heavy movie, perhaps the most humorless of Sheridan's heretofore serious-minded work, save for some welcome, dry asides from Greene. The film has some truly tough scenes of shocking, sudden violence that punctuate the moody atmosphere established by Ben Richardson's stark, whited-out cinematography, as well as Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's mournful, string-based score (Cave, incidentally, knows a thing or two about losing a child).
Although character types from Sheridan's previous films are present, they're mixed up in such a way that feels fresh. In spite of being cast in the rookie cop, audience-surrogate role, Olsen takes a clear back seat to Renner, who sheds his natural charm in favor of a gruff, taciturnly eloquent performance, one that feels a bit out of place if you think too long about it but works very well with the tone of the film: he's given a few monologues that sound written as such. We see Olsen, instead, through Renner's eyes, realizing that she is not too much older than his daughter would be had she been alive. Their relationship keeps the film's narrative together on an emotional level, distracting us from the various plot machinations that keep occurring.
As a director, Sheridan has gleaned some techniques from the two who have adapted his previous work. He favors Villeneuve's treatment of the landscape as a source of menace that one simultaneously admires and fears. And like Mackenzie, he treats the wider cast as part of a greater ensemble that fleshes out the world of the film, as opposed to serving as tools for the plot. Particularly good, once again, is Gil Birmingham, who returns from a terrific supporting turn in Hell or High Water as Martin, the father of the slain girl. His few scenes land with intense impact, demonstrating his penchant for restraint and understatement. In only a few minutes of screen time, he manages to convey the entrenched independence and suspicion of outsiders of the Native American people.
Wind River is another well made, socially conscious treatment of the inevitability of tragedy in the neglected corners of American society. It has the trappings of many thrillers - comparisons to The Silence of the Lambs and Winter's Bone are not far from the mind - but still manages to feel vital and necessary. We also get a rare, unvarnished glimpse into reservation life in all of its rugged beauty and glaring lack of support. The fact that we see this part of the country only in this bitterly sad context is indicative of where the Native American people stand in the social pecking order, a fact made uncomfortably literal by some ham-fisted messaging as the credits roll. We nevertheless need filmmakers like Sheridan making movies like this, dour and punishing as they may be.