For a writer of violent action thrillers, Taylor Sheridan has an unusual fixation with the inelegance of jurisdiction within American law enforcement. At Sundance, the screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water completed his spiritual trilogy of American bureaucracy and delivered his directorial debut with Wind River. Starring Jeremy Renner as a solemn hunter who discovers a dead teenage girl on the titular snow-covered Indian reservation, and Elizabeth Olsen as the inexperienced FBI agent assigned to the case, Wind River is a slow-burn thriller that flip-flops between meticulous noir and philosophically boorish procedural.
What’s the genre?
Coen Brothers noir meets the case of the week.
What's it about?
While tracking a mountain lion feasting on local livestock, “predator hunter” for hire Cory Lambert (Renner) spots the corpse of an 18-year-old woman who appears to have been raped and left for dead. Having lost a daughter of his own under similar circumstances, Lambert agrees to help an out-of-her-element FBI agent (Olsen) scout the reservation, knock on doors, navigate the mountain, and as a favor to the victim’s father, dish out justice to whomever is to blame.
The unraveling mystery is enlivened by a couple of exceptionally violent, thrillingly staged gun battles and some stunning photography of the snow-caked mountainsides. It’s beautiful and compelling, but perhaps a fraction of the energy expended on scenery would have been better spent fleshing out Olsen’s FBI agent, who, despite having a co-star share of screen time, has a background that can be explained in whole as “lives in Las Vegas by way of Fort Lauderdale.”
Sheridan is one of the most exciting screenwriters of the moment, and two of his three films put a woman in a lead role. But in both cases, the women are inexperienced and need to be saved — though Wind River gives Renner one line to let Olsen know she really saved herself. There are far worse depictions of women in cinema, sure, but it's nonetheless frustrating how close Sheridan comes to writing complex humans, only to produce walking receptacles for the emotions of brooding men.
Okay, but what's it really about?
The role of authority figures, and the complex shifting of power when everyone has a gun.
Wind River is obsessed with which law-enforcement agents are allowed to do what and to whom — maybe even more so than Taylor’s first released film, Sicario. The latter hinged on the FBI and a Mexican hitman using a local law-enforcement officer to legally green-light a complex international mission at the Mexico border. The legal knottiness of Wind River, on the other hand, operates on a scene-to-scene basis. Early in the film, Olsen scrimmages with a coroner about the woman’s official cause of death, which will decide whether Olsen can stay on the case. A later tense showdown features local cops, reservation police, the FBI, and legally armed contractors unholstering their weapons, screaming about who is allowed to threaten who.
I’m not sure what Sheridan means to say about jurisdiction with this trilogy, or whether his message is as simple as “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Whatever the case, his writing makes for great and shrewdly confusing conflict, setting seeming allies against each other, often at the most inconvenient times.
Wind River follows Hell Or High Water in spotlighting the fading culture of Native Americans living on underprivileged reservations, and the new film ups the ante on the theme. Taylor, who acted on network crime shows in his early career, has no compunction about using the compelling structure of tacky TV to hook in viewers, so he can introduce them to his take on the American experience — and its erosion in modern history.
But is it any good?
Whether it rises to the quality of Sicario or Hell or High Water is arguable, but it’s better than the lion’s share of action films and crime procedurals on film and television. The violence, in particular, is special.
Like Jackie Chan did with fist fights, Sheridan gives each new act of gunplay a gimmick. For example, a shootout in a drug den is complicated when the officials get blasted in the eyes with pepper spray, begriming the POV shot. A shootout isn't sexy when its participants keep puking on themselves. The film also shares its predecessors’ grotesque violence; attacked bodies don't merely bleed, they contort and implode. An ultra-powerful rifle delivers the punch of a cannon, rag-dolling targets into a mess of thinly connected limbs.
What should it be rated?
It should be rated R for extreme violence and existential dread.
How can I actually watch it?
Wind River does not currently have a release date, but you can expect to see it in 2017. It was originally set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, but was dropped shortly before Sundance.