“Wind River” is the directorial debut of Taylor Sheridan, the writer behind “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” two films I find nearly perfect. For a first go in the captain’s seat, perhaps it was wise to make “Wind River” his subject, as it sticks closely to the safe and simplistic framework of the police procedural. But, consequently, it also lacks the complexity that has made those two aforementioned films so memorable.
The title refers to the Wind River Indian Reservation, which we’re introduced to in the throes of a relentless Wyoming winter. When you shield your eyes from the blistering wind just long enough to look out upon the endless blanket of snow, it’s immediately apparent that hell has frozen over and it’s not any cozier than before. But everywhere is home to somebody. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) calls this tundra home, and has managed to carve out a career as a specialized hunter.
In the process of tracking a lion, Lambert comes across what appears to be a snow angel, but the trail of blood leading to a deceased Native American woman would suggest otherwise. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out it was no lion, but something more calculated, more destructive and more unnatural altogether. Thus begins the investigation, led by Lambert, the local police department and Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), an FBI agent who plays by the rules—naively assuming it’s a fair game.
Sheridan’s skills as a writer remain intact. Like all great screenwriters, he understands that plot isn’t just the least interesting aspect of a movie, but a burden that must be constantly nurtured. The murder investigation is merely an opportunity for which the characters to reveal themselves, because characters make movies, not plots. Sheridan begins with stereotypes—Lambert is the no-nonsense wild card with baggage and Banner is the spunky upstart who does things by the book—and attempts to augment them by way of dialogue and action.
But in this, he’s only so successful. Save for the solid performances and a few exceptional lines (“this isn’t the land of backup”), the characters are generally dull and indistinguishable from the characters of other like films. And there are certain themes that are initially interesting but don’t quite leave an impression, such as the idea that the predator/prey relationship still exists in civilized society—a concept handled with far more finesse on TV’s “Fargo.” Additionally, Sheridan works in an allegory of domination over one culture by another; it’s here the film is at its strongest and most confident.
Even though the film, as a whole, fell somewhat flat for me, there are a number of spikes in quality. One scene featuring Jon Bernthal, the go-to guy for on the spot intensity, is a harrowing escalation of suspense that holds nothing back. Another featuring a one-on-one conversation between Lambert and a grieving father, played by Gil Birmingham from “Hell or High Water,” is Sheridan at his best. He’s able to break a character down into an entirely vulnerable state, and all while remaining emotionally unobtrusive.
“Wind River” has a sure sense of place and can be riveting—however infrequently—but it’s not worthy of the talent involved. If this was an episode of one of the 12,000 cop shows on television, it would be shockingly impressive, but as the third film written by Taylor Sheridan, it’s something of a runt. A loveable runt, at the very most.