If you haven’t heard of Taylor Sheridan by now, I’m sure he is going to be a household name from 2017 and beyond. Following up two stellar films he wrote (‘Sicario’, ‘Hell or High Water’) with his directorial debut, ‘Wind River’, Sheridan is making a name for himself as one of the most exciting writer-directors in the business today.
According to Sheridan himself, ‘Wind River’ is the end of his “American frontier trilogy”, an anthology series documenting varying aspects of American life. Where ‘Sicario’ took on the military and immigration, ‘Hell or High Water’ took on crime and class culture, ‘Wind River’ takes aim at sexism and secluded societies around the country. Across all three films, Sheridan criticises aspects of life that have become part and parcel of American culture, while managing to tell a riveting story on top of it; and the final part, ‘Wind River’, is no exception.
‘Wind River’ is set in an Indian Reservation in Wyoming, a stunning, mountainous, snowy tundra of a place that is miles away from any sort of city. The people of Wind River are on their own, any problems that arise will have to be solved by themselves or not at all. Police are few and far between as the town’s police department is a 6-man operation that covers hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain. This is Cory Lambert’s (Renner) playground. He is a hunter, a man who roams the mountains and does odd jobs for the locals, hunting and killing the wild animals that are terrorising the town and their farm system. During one of his expeditions, Cory stumbles across a dead body in the snow, and suspecting murder, calls in young FBI Agent Jane Banner (Olsen) to investigate. What follows is a tense murder mystery that is sure to leave a lasting impression long after you’ve left the cinema.
What struck me during the film, and after the film had ended, was how assured a debut this was for Sheridan. It is as confident and as good a debut as I’ve seen since Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ or Ryan Coogler’s ‘Fruitvale Station’. Everything in the film is done to such a high standard in front of and behind the camera that Sheridan was evidently in total control of his cast and crew, going as far as bringing out a career-best performance from Jeremy Renner. The cinematography gives the film a gorgeous, bright tone that does the area’s stunning scenery justice, the soundtrack complimenting the action on screen with both foreboding and uplifting moments, and the clever editing during certain scenes (there’s one sumptuous, intentionally surprising and jarring cut with an opening door that gives the upcoming scene an entirely different meaning) add to the film’s escalating tension.
As previously mentioned, Jeremy Renner is terrific in the role of mysterious recluse Cory. Living a life away from his ex-wife and son (who gets occasional visits), he has intentionally placed himself in an environment where he is effectively in charge of his own destiny. He has forged a small career out of his hunting and he thrives upon it, to the point where once the body is discovered, the FBI agent called in is effectively helping Cory solve the murder, rather than the way it was intended. Olsen is equally excellent as the underestimated agent, someone left on her own to solve a bigger crime than the FBI had anticipated, facing a constant stream of sexism and ageism from the locals and even the local police department. Olsen gets her moment in the spotlight in the final act as things begin to escalate out of control, and she brings out a fiery temperament that is sure to be a major reason for Banner to have climbed the ranks of the FBI.
Where I found the film stumbled slightly is in its climax. The story up to this point is so intriguing and well-thought out, the eventual reveal of how the events happened comes somewhat out of left field. In the best-written murder mysteries, an initially innocent moment or character is revealed as a major factor in the mystery; in ‘Wind River’, there is no earlier suggestion of “whodunnit”. As such, initially, the climax of the main murder lands with a hefty bump.
Since, however, the ending has improved in my mind. Sheridan doesn’t exaggerate the story for dramatic purposes; this is a story that happened, and this is how it ends. In real life, there is no dramatic final act twist. There may not be a wholly satisfying resolution to every last thread. People wish to put the dramatic events behind them, and people move on. I’ll be stunned if Sheridan doesn’t end up with an Oscar nomination for his script next year.
‘Wind River’ is a terrific film. There’s no other way of saying it; so much of this film is made to such a high standard that Sheridan has set himself an improbably high standard to exceed with his next film. If you can, avoid any trailers, go into ‘Wind River’ as blind as you can. You won’t regret it.
Rhys’ rating: 9.0 out of 10
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow