Director: Taylor Sheridan
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Jon Bernthal, Graham Greene
Composer: Warren Ellis
Genre: Action, Crime, Mystery, Thriller, Film Noir
Actor turned screenwriter, and now director, Taylor Sheridan has wowed critics with his previous films, Sicario and Hell or High Water. His newest film, Wind River, is the third in his trilogy concerning the modern American frontier. Premiering at Sundance and then Cannes, it seems that Sheridan has once again pleased the critics with this crime drama set in snow. This is a major achievement for the rookie director, considering this is the first time he is shooting one of his own scripts. Though it hasn’t been a completely smooth ride, with distributor, The Weinstein Company, dropping Wind River right before its world premiere. While this unusual move obviously did not faze critics, is Wind River the type of film to only appeal to the indie crowd, and therefore not a wise investment for Weinstein (who eventually agreed to distribute the film again)? Is Taylor Sheridan’s latest offering one for mainstream audiences as well?
Violence/Scary Images: The entire plot centers around a murder investigation. Corpses are found frozen in the snow, sometimes with wildlife feasting on the remains. There is blood. One corpse has a limb missing, however, this film isn’t gratuitous with its use of gore, though it is still grisly scene.
Wind River also contains a brutal fistfight containing multiple assailants. A man rapes a woman, with the camera staying on the victim’s face for the duration of the act. There is a heavy amount of gun violence, with people firing multiple bullets and shooting each other dead. Two characters are hit with a shovel. Mace is also used against a few characters, causing them to vomit. A few characters are forced to run through the snow until they die of natural causes. There is an autopsy scene, though it isn’t graphic, and the body is already cut open when the scene begins. Three coyotes are also shot; the camera doesn’t cut away, rather you see the impact of the bullet and the bodies go limp.
Language/Crude Humor: All of the major swear words are used multiple times throughout the film. God’s name is also used in vain.
Spiritual Content: None.
Sexual Content: An unmarried couple are seen embracing each other in a bed–it is heavily implied that this is after sexual intercourse. As mentioned above in the violence section, a man rapes a woman. There are a few discussions about rape and sexual temptation. As for nudity, the bare bottoms of a woman and a man are shown. There is a brief amount of nudity during an autopsy sequence.
Drug/Alcohol References: One character is under the influence of an illicit substance, though they aren’t shown taking it. Alcohol is consumed, and in one scene it is to excess, leading to violence.
Other Negative Content: Wind River is quite a brutal film in that it is realistic and unflinching in its violence. It does not shy away from any of the harsh realities that the characters face. There is also a scene where a character self harms as a way of coping with grief.
Positive Content: There are a number of Native American characters in this film. While it doesn’t avoid some of the negative issues present within the community, Wind River does not resort to racial stereotypes either. It also would have been easy to turn the story into a White Man’s Guilt type movie, but instead the narrative merely portrays a group of flawed humans just trying to get by in an inhospitable environment.
Wind River is subtle with its storytelling but brutal with its action. Those who have followed Taylor Sheridan’s screenwriting career will know from past experience that he doesn’t like to hold the audience’s hand by making characters deliver monologues containing piles of exposition. Instead, every piece of dialogue feels natural and realistic, as though the audience is taking a peek inside the life of another. A brief glance at a photo is enough to convey the sadness as to why a particular piece of clothing is important to a grieving grandparent. While a monosyllabic utterance and short grimace from Jeremy Renner’s long-time local character, Cory Lambert, presents a lifetime of hardened experience.
Unlike Sheridan’s previous films (Sicario, Hell or High Water), Wind River is set in snow, though it’s arguably no more bitter or formidable than the others in this loose-fitting, modern American frontier trilogy. It’s as though the blustery landscape is a character in itself, turning the story into a man vs. nature premise. Wind River, the name of a Native American reservation, houses a mismatched series of individuals, none of which are too happy to reside in the desolate country.
Native Americans, seasonal workers, and officers from various jurisdictions all converge, making Wind River from the outset seem like a small town, close-knit community. Yet with the weather’s strong grasp over the roads, a short drive to the next property over feels like miles away from civilization. Wind River could be described as a film noir, where Cadillacs have been replaced with snowmobiles, trench coats with padded jackets, and the tension in atmosphere remaining high due to the isolation factor. When FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), waggles her badge around in amongst a burly group of men, claiming she has authority and power in the situation, her words feel so meaningless in the brutally cold environment.
Olsen delivers a strong performance, though it’s Jeremy Renner that steals the show. He slips into narrative like a cold hand into a well-worn winter glove. In an incredibly nuanced performance, unlike his typical action hero roles, Renner is both hardened by life but a welcome face to many around the town. His character has lived near the Wind River Indian Reservation for years, and Renner certainly sells that sense of familiarity of the land and its ragtag inhabitants.
One major drawback from the performances is the sound quality. I’m uncertain as to whether Renner was merely mumbling his lines, the recording wasn’t the best in the first place, or it was simply the cinema I was in. Regardless, I found myself on the edge of my seat, not because of the plot’s tension, but rather to lean in further in an attempt to hear the dialogue better (as though that action somehow improves anything when in a cinema, but I digress!). I didn’t miss a line, but it was a strain to catch everything that was said. The foley in one of the fight scenes also sounded off, with punches seeming too slappy for the action, though it’s more of a minor nit-pick in an otherwise technically brilliant film.
No one can really deny that Taylor Sheridan is a wonderful filmmaker with plenty of skill. His stories are terse, with Wind River being as beautifully gnarly as one would expect from such an inhospitable landscape. Yet sadly it’s not an exceptional piece of cinema. It’s a wonderful, well-made film, but it’s not a revolutionary contribution to the art form. It’s a good crime thriller, but in a few years time it will recede into the back of people’s minds, similar to what happened to The Hurt Locker. It will win many awards and great comments from critics as it completes the film festival circuit, but it’s not the landmark, unforgettable journey that some have claimed it to be. It’s still an excellent watch, even though it may not find its way into your permanent DVD collection.
+ Gripping story. + One of Jeremy Renner's best performances. + Above average for its genre.
- Some dialogue is difficult to hear. - Foley sound effects are a little off. - Despite its awards, it's not memorable enough to last for generations.
The Bottom Line
A wonderfully told crime thriller with film noir elements. Yet while it is a solid example of the genre and worthy of its critical attention, it’s ultimately not a memorable piece when analyzing its contribution to the world of cinema as a whole.