The Wind River Indian Reservation. A forgotten, abandoned region that for writer/director Taylor Sheridan who laced the script for both Sicario and Hell or High Water (he has a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination to his name) hopes will be more recognized by people. He hopes the audience will ask questions about themselves, how they treat people and how they see this place.
We witness a young Natalie Hanson running aimlessly through the snow in a manner that suggests that she’s not long for this world. We’ve no idea why. The howl in the air makes the eventual death all the more unforgiving and brutal. She’s barefoot by the way.
We then see Jeremy Renner’s Cory Lambert; an expert game tracker who works for the Fish and Wildlife service. He discovers Natalie’s body and is visibly upset. He’s used to carnivore carcasses, not human ones. He calls in emergency assistance and can’t bear the thought of facing the victim’s parents as they’re close. Everyone’s distraught.
Elizabeth Olsen’s rookie FBI agent Jane Banner arrives at the Natalie’s house, bracing herself in her rental SUV, panting and seemingly fearing the worst. She’s underdressed, unprepared and unaware of what awaits her. When the autopsy is done, a reality bomb forces Jane to remain in the reservation. It becomes clear that she won’t get far in this investigation without Cory’s help as he knows of the landscape better than most.
The community depicted in the film haven’t much nice things to say about Pinedale which is where the reservation is. All they have is the snow and the silence. There’s a sense of hopelessness as they feel their identity has been stripped from them, their view of the rest of the world is restricted. There’s cultural tension amongst the natives and Caucasians with insults like “white boy” and “decaf head”.
One of the more exciting storytellers of this generation, Taylor’s approach is to make simple plots in order to flesh out his characters. The connected tissue through Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River is not only depicting the American Frontier but also failure as a father. By characterizing these parts of the world as broken and impoverished, the protagonists’ vulnerability is put into focus.
Jeremy Renner’s squinty eyes lend Cory a wise, patient, steady quality. An inviting character study of a weary man whose own past tragedy motivates him to try and avenge the victim to combat his own demons. It’s one of his best performances to date that may hopefully lead to awards contention.
Gil Birmingham is quietly magnificent as Natalie’s father who experiences this level of grief for the first time. His fierce eyes help to sell his vulnerability, which is amplified more by Cory’s advice on pain and suffering. The cold makes the loss all the more bitter.
Graham Greene’s a great catch too. His tribal police chief Ben is direct, crusty and withered and some of the other townsfolk share his disdain
Nick Cave’s and Warren Ellis’ score is sombre, haunting and mournful which compliments the films spiritual mood.
Sheridan’s screenwriting stands out more than his direction here however. It’s his first effort as a filmmaker so it’s somewhat forgivable. To his credit, the weather conditions were blizzardy and was filmed in 40 days so his affection for the location is what compelled him to shepherd the whole thing. In time I’m sure he’ll improve but in this the climate may have worked against him and does make the pacing all the more glacial even when considering it’s a mystery thriller.
I’m also unsure of Olsen’s characterization. It’s not a bad performance, it’s just there isn’t much complexity there. She’s kinda plain and formal which although her character new to much of this, it could’ve had more grit.
It’s a solid, meditative effort from Sheridan in the end who manages build the impending tension to a relentless crescendo in a shootout that hits with pulsating efficiency. He also mercifully avoids any romance between Jane and Cory, implied or otherwise. Just a respectful bond of one another. When it is revealed what led to Natalie’s demise, it’s unflinching and unbearable. The ending is however cathartic and with the score, I found myself tearing up at a character’s resolution, it was a resounding release that was peaceful.
One of 2017’s more intimate projects, Taylor Sheridan is now 3 for 3 for me and I’ll always look forward to what he does next.