Wind River is the story of deep, unfathomable, emptiness – both physically and emotionally.
It opens with shots of the vast nothingness of the snowy Wyoming terrain and closes with two men silently appreciating the comfort of each other’s company – before words flash over the screen hitting the audience in the face with a shocking fact. This is the directorial debut of Sicario and Hell or High Water scribe Taylor Sheridan, moving from the back deserts of Texas to a land even more desolate. Sheridan seems committed to telling stories from places and people most see fit to ignore. It’s a sincere and admirable goal that Sheridan mostly succeeds at. This makes it difficult to fault his work for small missteps, but also makes the missteps more glaringly obvious.
Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a local fish-and-game tracker who stumbles across the body of a teenage Native girl while hunting cougars on Indian Reservation land. The FBI sends their nearest agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) who utilizes Cory’s expertise to solve the murder in conjunction with tribal law enforcement (Graham Greene). However, Cory shows ulterior motives for his involvement in the case, related to a past family tragedy which is hinted at throughout the film and still only given the haziest of details when it is finally revealed.
As in Hell or High Water, Sheridan’s strength is in leaving no character undeveloped, no part left too small. Roles which other movies would treat as “just the doctor” or “the information source” are given full scenes to explore motives and reason. These characters serve a purpose, and though they make the film feel a little overly talkative in parts, their realism and relative strength help the cohesiveness of Sheridan’s storytelling as a whole.
What Sheridan’s made here is another blend of modern Western and neo-noir, this time focusing on the Sherrif’s posse aspect more than the bank-robbing outlaws. With help from Beasts of the Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson, Sheridan uses the harshness of the landscape as background radiation for the struggles of the characters, who frequently lament and also honor the land in turn. “This ain’t the land of waiting for backup, this is the land of you’re-on-your-own” Ben informs Jane when things start to look bad. The thread of wild-west vigilantism is strong here, swapping horses for snowmobiles. And it’s also where the movie starts to get muddled in the third act.
The soft-spoken stoic nature of Cory Lambert is one of Jeremy Renner’s best performances to date.
We’ve seen this before, the man with the particular set of skills and vengeance on his mind, but Cory is something different. His grief is not hidden, he is open and upfront about it, and his quest isn’t for revenge, it’s for closure. Not even for him, he seeks to bring closure for his friends (the always-excellent Gil Birmingham) and his ex-wife (Julia Jones).
Still, this doesn’t keep the film from sidelining Jane in act three and parlaying her underpreparedness into a role that mainly serves to exemplify how competent Cory is. The film’s reverence is not subtle – Cory is literally introduced killing wolves to protect a flock of sheep. The dampened-but-still-present streak of revenge thriller coursing through the veins of this movie weaken the other aspects of the film. By the time the film reaches its climax, it feels less about grief or the mistreatment of Native women and more a vehicle for the cowboy coolness of Cory Lambert.
Wind River is imperfect, and never quite reaches the level of Hell or High Water. But it’s still complex and worthwhile, fueled by strong performances and beautiful landscapes. Sheridan is admirable and fascinating as an American storyteller, and his willingness to explore that which is often overlooked should be rewarded.Liked This? Share It!