Wind River follows the story of Cory Lambert, a tracker for the Fish & Wildlife Service, and his efforts to aid the FBI and local law enforcement in their investigation into the murder of Natalie, a Native girl found raped and killed miles away from civilization.
Wind River is the conclusion of what many critics have come to describe as Taylor Sheridan’s frontier trilogy. Like Hell or High Water and Sicario, Wind River takes place far from the booming cities and the glitz of the modern world. The story is set, unsurprisingly, in the Wind River Indian Reservation and portrays the struggle of those left behind by the march of technological and social advancement. This particular theme, that of survival and fending for oneself after being left behind by the very institutions that should be protecting the general populace, is one that has shaped all of Sheridan’s work and has won him near endless praise for his ability to shape his screenplays around a solid thematic core while still managing to deliver entertaining and engaging moments. His directorial debut, though, in the form of Wind River is by far his weakest outing and fails to live up to the brilliance of his previous work. It feels like a lesser version of the movies that are based on his screenplays. It delivers very little of the interesting commentary of Hell or High Water and only manages to sprinkle in the occasional moments of terrifying tension that made Sicario as good as it was. That isn’t to say this is a bad movie, far from it, especially considering it’s the work of a first-time director. But it’s mediocre by comparison.
With that said, I enjoyed Wind River quite a bit, if only because of how obvious the learning process that Sheridan goes through during the film is. As it goes on, Wind River becomes more confident in itself, the gelatinous blob of beautiful scenery, constant shaky cam and mumbled dialogue with awkward editing takes form and becomes a competent movie with a clear arc. The progress is impressive, as the final 30 minutes of the film offer one of the greatest Mexican standoffs in recent memory, as well as some excellently planned shoot outs that remind us of Taylor Sheridan’s penchant for suspense and crushing tension. This latter half of Wind River alone is enough to reassure me that Sheridan has the potential to direct some very interesting movies in the future.
The movie is a murder mystery at its core, a sort of quasi-police procedural that doesn’t actually play out like one. There are no clues or hints to be pieced together by the viewer, or by the characters themselves, for that matter. Cory Lambert is as good as trackers get and he does pretty much all of the police’s work for them. Not that Ben, the chief of police in the reservation, minds. Wind River succeeds in creating a sense of small town familiarity; everyone knows everyone, there are very few secrets to be uncovered in such a large, yet sparsely populated area. This brings me to the biggest positive aspect of the film, and that is its tone and all-encompassing atmosphere. There are many wide angle establishing shots in this film, but for once they serve a narrative purpose rather than existing solely as eye candy that is supposed to cover up the lack of interesting cinematography. The sense of isolation is almost crippling. There is nothing around save for the snowy mountains and sleeping forests full of predators. Wind River, at its core, seems to be a story about the relationship between predator and victim, hunter and hunted. That’s established very early on, during the first scene of the movie, as Cory kills a pack of wolves that have gotten dangerously close to a flock of grazing sheep. The movie seems to posit that, in the absence of the powers that be or rather when said powers are asleep at the wheel and ignore the troubles of a part of society that is deemed unworthy of attention, the only thing that can protect the community is individual agency and the willingness of said community to survive. This is a point that is continuously reiterated through the actions of the characters, through the very nature of the story and, in the end, by a monologue by Jeremy Renner’s character, Cory Lambert. If nothing else, Taylor Sheridan knows how to present his ideas and weave them into the plot, and that is a feat that shouldn’t be understated. Perhaps it wasn’t done quite as well as it could have been in this instance, but the effort is still commendable.
Speaking of Jeremy Renner, this is possibly his best performance to date. His stoic exterior is reminiscent of the Western cowboys of yore but with at least a tinge of emotional depth, making Cory Lambert a much more interesting character than most protagonists in Western movies. Elizabeth Olsen delivers in her role as Jane Banner, an FBI agent that flies out to the res in order to help out with the investigation, while most of the Native American actors also do a great job, particularly Gil Birmingham.
Overall, Wind River offers much in the way of entertainment, even if it is lacking in the technical department, especially earlier on. Some viewers might be bothered by the occasional hiccups in some of the most basic aspects of film making, like the shot-reverse-shot that seems to be mistimed in a few instances, but the movie more than makes up for this in its later parts. It feels exactly like the type of film that Tarantino would take inspiration from, had it been made 30 or so years earlier. It’s good but not great, somewhat slow but never boring, very atmospheric and definitely worth a watch.