Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, Kelsey Chow, Jon Bernthal
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writers of a certain brand of obnoxious machismo are often given the rugged stoicism card. Taylor Sheridan, who has only written three screenplays, has somehow been vaulted to Hollywood elite status; etching tales of world-weary men given to outburst of macho violence in the name of "doing what a man's gotta do." His work on Denis Villeneuve's Sicario and David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water were both exercises in lean genre pulp which nonetheless played up a kind of self-importance. His crackling dialogue and overly mannered monologues were, for better or worse, elevated by filmmakers who understood compositional verisimilitude. However, Sheridan's directing debut lacks the clarity of focus of those two films, and as such, succumbs to his screenplay's obvious flaws. For all it's portentous mood and faux-naturalistic dialogue, Wind River plays like a Cable TV drama; telegraphing it's themes and emotional beats with stunning predictability, made slightly bearable only by the presence of an A-list cast. It's also, unfortunately, another one of those stories about indigenous Native cultures being used as a backdrop for a stoic white man dispensing platitudes and playing avenger.
The film takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, and opens with a young woman running barefoot through the snow before collapsing. We come to find out that the woman, Natalie (Kelsey Chow), was raped and had attempted to escape her attacker before being found by Wildlife Services agent, Cory (Jeremy Renner) lying dead in the snow. Cue the arrival of green yet determined F.B.I. agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) who, along with Cory and Tribal police officer, Ben (Graham Greene) set their sights on finding the killer. Shocked by the poverty and lack of resources on the reservation, Jane becomes a mouth-piece for delivering socio-political statements regarding this inequality, and her mystified reactions are only exacerbated by Ben's cynicism as he mostly shakes his head at the white girl's obliviousness. Rather than probe this idea further, however, the film chooses to sidestep the institutionalized racial overtones of the story by having Jane forge a path with Cory, leaving Ben (and all other Native residents for that matter) in the background. This decision by Sheridan proves his spinelessness as a storyteller; made all the more galling by a sequence in which Cory delivers a cringe-worthy monologue to Natalie's grieving father, as if the mourning process is better understood and contextualized by the words of a white coyote hunter who also has lost someone.
In terms of plotting, Wind River is a fairly simple tale of revenge and loss. However, the narrative lurches in slow and uninspired fashion until completely unraveling with the inclusion of a flashback scene that's meant to key us in on exactly what happened to Natalie. Rather than becoming enlightening, this decision highlights Sheridan's penchant for exploitation, and is only there to rile up the audience to root for justice to be served. In terms of scope and aesthetic, the icy landscapes of the Indian reservation are shot by cinematographer Ben Richardson with a real eye for atmosphere, but Sheridan mishandles nearly every other scene by framing them with unfocused, sloppy handheld camerawork. When an intense shoot-out erupts late in the proceedings, the film jumps to life with a semblance of a pulse, but in retrospect, such a moment is carefully calibrated to erase the agency of the murdered woman. Rather than feel empathy or even rage, we are caught up in the visceral thrill of genre filmmaking, allowing us to become complicit with Cory's noble stoicism as he enacts his own brand of vigilante justice.
With the din of gunfire merging with the choral chanting of the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Wind River asks to be taken seriously as a bleak encapsulation of the world as a cruel, unfair place. Men are evil. Even good men can be corrupted. Women are vulnerable and often expendable. Above all, nature doesn't give a fuck about your survival. However, the most valuable takeaway here is none of these things, but rather, that Sheridan is no Cormac McCarthy (few are), and that the injustices enacted against Native Americans can be smoothed over (albeit momentarily) by the agency of white male superiority.