WIND RIVER: Murder Mystery As American Indictment

The Writer of SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER Continues His Quality Streak

Writer/Director Taylor Sheridan has a thing for wolves. And we’re all the better for it.

In the greatest line of dialog at the close of his exceptional thriller Sicario, Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious operative Alejandro tells Emily Blunt’s wearied police detective with newly opened eyes “You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now”. It’s an affirmation of her character’s innate goodness, an acknowledgement of Alejandro’s predatory capabilities, and an admission of the current state of the world. It’s a remarkable line in a breathtaking film.

Sheridan’s major directorial debut Wind River opens with a tragic and mysterious death. A shoeless woman running across the frozen Wyoming landscape into her certain death. Cut to… wolves… prowling on a flock; defenseless but for the rifleman hidden away, putting down the threat of the wolves with superior violence. That rifleman is Jeremy Renner’s Corey Lambert. Game warden, hunter, tracker, and a white man living in a Native world; ex-husband to a Native woman, father to Native children. Lambert is Renner’s best role since The Hurt Locker (though Arrival was probably the best film he’s appeared in). Lambert’s no white savior; he’s just a man who has become bound to the land as deeply as his Native neighbors have become since being forcefully relegated there. He’s also a man who has loved and lost, motivated to solve this crime after a profound loss of his own; a loss which seems to further enmesh him into the Native community he’s a part of.

It is while tracking a predator that he comes across the body of our young woman. When the FBI are called in, the closest agent is the young and untested Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen in a fine audience surrogate role), travelling into Wyoming’s frozen hellscape fresh from Las Vegas’ heated one. Together with beloved Native actor Graham Greene (Ben, the local sheriff), these three will go wherever this case leads them. And it will not be a pleasant journey.

It will be harrowing, however, and enthralling to viewers. Sheridan has come out of the gate with a roaring pen, scripting both Sicario and Hell Or High Water; films dealing in quintessentially American landscapes such as our borderlands and Texas plains, but infusing a clear eyed observation of the challenges our modern times have laid atop of those iconic environments. He may be one of our most important modern Western writers. With Wind River, Sheridan steps into the director’s chair and, to his credit, tells a more intimate and tightly focused tale which, while not as cinematic as the Roger Deakins-shot Sicario, is nonetheless a bold debut in visual storytelling. Even better, his beautiful writing isn’t dulled by the added responsibility of directing. It’s possible Sheridan errs on the side of speechifying at times, with characters giving monologues or speaking in such polished thoughtfulness that one can’t help but hear the voice of the author coming through. But when you can write monologues like Sheridan can, and when you give them to actors like Jeremy Renner or Hell Or High Water’s Gil Birmingham (here playing the father of our lost Native girl in a potent and brief role), why NOT deliver those speeches with confidence?

On the one hand, the mystery thriller element of Wind River is engrossing. We learn quickly who the victim was. But why was she running? Who was she running from? That we won’t learn until the climax of the film. In the meantime Sheridan’s script does a great job of fleshing out not only who Lambert and Jane are, but also how this land came to be the way it is. The environment of Wind River is practically a serial killer itself, with the plight of the people living there becoming ripe dramatic material over which to drape a character-based procedural thriller. The characters and world building are so gripping that when jaw dropping levels of tragic violence erupt at the drop of a hat, it’s viscerally shocking and emotionally devastating.

With the harsh and beautiful settings Sheridan chooses to tell his stories in, one also gets engrossed in the thematic implications of his work. The wolves, for instance. It’s not that wolves are bad in Sheridan’s worldview. It’s just that they are predators, thriving in environments that are favorable to them. In these bleak places, it isn’t just survival of the fittest… it’s that we’re barely even set apart from the animal kingdom itself. The isolation and purity of the mountainous far reaches of Wyoming create a different way of life… one of survival. And there has to be just a little bit of predator in you to survive in a place like that. It’s a worldview that I find thrilling to contemplate and revealing of how harshly our system can eat a person up and spit them out. But it may not be the most crowd pleasing tone imaginable.

Which is why it’s so special. Here you’ve got two of Marvel’s Avengers headlining a decidedly bleak, and definitively adult theatrical experience. You’ve got Sheridan telling a brutal story that pulls zero punches and forces us to reflect on the meat grinder of a country we’ve built for ourselves. And while Wind River may be the opposite of a four quadrant audience pleaser, it is a breathtaking dose of emotional authenticity rarely found in Summer films. It’s counter programming that is desperately needed in a season of weightless computer generated imagery and blow hard politics.

Wind River isn’t without its faults. One potential gripe being the bent towards speechifying. And the explosive violence that does occur towards the climax isn’t given an opportunity to reverberate through the entire community the way it perhaps could have, instead choosing to resolve with a tight focus on just a few of our main characters. There’s loss of life that isn’t acknowledged in favor of resolving our main leads’ arcs. And even then, it’s a small gripe. Perhaps there are “problematic” elements such as a white filmmaker and two white leads telling a largely Native story. Those are all legitimate discussion points or marks against the final film.

But what a remarkable film it is. Among my favorite theatrical experiences of 2017, I’d be shocked if Wind River doesn’t find a place in my top 10 films of 2017. It’s simply thrilling to watch a talent like Sheridan’s unfold in real time up on the big screen. We’re living in frightening times, and Sheridan is one of the most clear examples of artists emerging from our troubled times and prophetically telling us the truth, no matter how hard it is to hear.

Wind River is stark, beautiful, devastating, and exactly the kind of adult experience we desperately need in these increasingly infantile times.

And I’m Out.

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