Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen
Original Soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Film Review by Euan Franklin
The pressure’s on. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan makes his directorial debut (sort of) after scripting Sicario and Hell or High Water for Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, two brilliantly innovative directors. Villeneuve, especially, is considered a modern, mainstream auteur. How could Sheridan not be nervous?
Set within the desolate and thinly populated Wind River Indian Reservation in wintry Wyoming, hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) stumbles across the body of a teenage girl embedded in the snow. The FBI send Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a young and inexperienced agent, to investigate the murder. With little experience of the cold, tough environment, she requests Cory’s continued assistance to hunt the killer. Together, they seek the person responsible.
The plot is rather predictable. We expect twists and turns and different directions, like in most Fargoish neo-noirs, but instead we’re given only a simple story to engage with. The villains are cartoonish in their evil actions, making the ending feel underdeveloped despite a serviceable set-up. It’s almost like Sheridan’s saying, “They’re bad because they’re bad – deal with it!” This isn’t to say that there aren’t a few surprises along the way, many of which are emotionally harrowing – testing your stomach and your tears.
Sheridan is weaker as a director than a screenwriter, which is no surprise to anyone. He’s too eager to move onto the next scene, not allowing enough space and pace between the characters’ words. The dialogue feels rushed, despite the deep emotions underlying them, which is where Villeneuve and Mackenzie have the upper hand. However, where Wind River stands on its own, away from the shadows of superior directors, is in its humanism. Unlike the conventional nihilism pervading similar films, the characters refuse to accept the futility of death and the pointlessness of life. Mackenzie and Villeneuve show humans crumbling, but only from a distance – as if they feel awkward. Sheridan pushes us right into the middle of the tears and the trauma, forcing us to endure every emotion. And not once is it dripped in sentimental cheese.
The performances are fragile and intense, suiting Sheridan’s delicate dialogue. Every conversation feels like tip-toeing through shards of broken glass, and if the characters aren’t careful, they’ll get scarred. Renner and Olsen return to their indie-movie roots, and Wind River reminds you that both are better actors than The Avengers would have you believe. They deliver heart-rending emotions with such natural precision – something no amount of CGI could mimic.
As with Hell or High Water, Wind River has an original soundtrack composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. This is poignantly appropriate considering the death of Cave’s son in 2015, and the Bad Seeds’ latest album The Skeleton Tree, recorded after it. There are many similarities between the album and the soundtrack, matching with the central theme of the film: coping with the loss of one’s child, and the grief that comes with it. Cave’s dark voice give the film a further legitimacy to the characters’ traumas, in a way a movie score rarely achieves.
Wind River isn’t quite enough to join the ranks of Sicario or Hell or High Water, but distinguishes itself with a rare sense of humanity that Sheridan thrives inside. You ache for these beaten-down heroes, to the point where they feel real enough to touch. And when you do, be prepared for emotional frostbite.