I chose Wind River for this review on the strength of writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s previous work. Both 2015’s Sicario (written by Sheridan but directed by Denis Villeneuve, himself emerging as one of modern filmmaking’s premiere stylists) and last year’s Hell or High Water (also written by Sheridan but directed by someone else, in this case David Mackenzie, a Scottish director with whom I’m not terribly familiar) both ranked among the strongest Oscar-nominated films of their respective years, contrasting brutal violence with the quiet force of their emotional and psychological intensity. This film works in much the same mode, but feels slighter and less developed by comparison. I don’t consider it a failure, but I do feel a little less certain what to take away from its various elements.
The premise is that of a fairly conventional thriller: on the eponymous native reservation in Wyoming, the body of a young woman is found in the snow by US Fish & Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who is then recruited into helping track down the killer by the only available–and still relatively green–FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). But the film is less concerned with the mystery aspect, instead–much like the films mentioned above–functioning more in the tradition of the western. Like a western–a revisionist western in particular–it sets up a series of familiar oppositions: native and white, male and female, civilization and wilderness, and probes at the power dynamic between them.
The distrust of the native population re: white authority is palpable in ways both big and small. The chief of the tribal police, a resigned and weary Graham Greene, reminds Banner that they cannot expect backup, in no small part because the response of the authorities to their problems is usually less passionate than she, but a more subtle and telling moment comes when a woman lends the unprepared agent some winter gear to go out into the (literal) field. “This isn’t a gift,” she warns firmly, speaking indirectly to a legacy of violence and entitlement that underscores the film.
This dovetails with the violence and entitlement towards women that makes up the mechanical aspect of the film’s murder plot. In an unexpected bit of narrative structure, the film jumps in time in its final act–we watch the inciting incident play out before we witness its climax. The choice is an intelligent one; it throws the audience off balance for a moment, giving up on mystery in favor of a more visceral tension. But more importantly, the sequence distills how a white, masculine dominion over physical space translates to a (perceived) dominion over the people–particularly women–in it.
Even in this final conflict, Lambert is literally a man apart, traveling his own path, his white hunter’s camo melting him into the landscape itself. He is an archetypal western hero–solitary and stoic with a tragic backstory, most at home in the wilderness and not quite able to belong. It’s immediately made clear he is an ally who values the culture of the people around him–in an early moment, teaching his son to ride a horse, the boy asks if his moves are “pretty cowboy,” only to be gently corrected that they’re “pretty Arapahoe.” But he’s also reminded by one of the reservation’s angry young men that he can’t really identify: “the only thing native about you is an ex-wife and daughter you couldn’t protect.”
To his credit as an actor, Renner is more than up to portraying those interior conflicts. His performance is sensitive and rich, even if he is occasionally saddled with dialogue that comes off a little overly self-conscious and a bit like a dour motivational poster. His character is interesting and sympathetic but his complete centricity is also what ultimately feels like blunts the message. Olsen does a solid job with what arc her character has–she becomes visibly more comfortable wielding authority as the story progresses, going from “not that I’m much help or anything,” to being able to diffuse a standoff between several armed men. Likewise Gil Birmingham makes a relatively brief but powerful impact as the dead girl’s father (particularly in the film’s closing moments), hanging on to his identity and choices in the face of them crumbling around him. But even the two of them aren’t given much background or narrative space to breathe and change in a really impactful way. This is ultimately a film about a white man, even as it feels like it’s trying not to be.
Perhaps that’s somewhat the point, I suppose, because it does feel like it’s about the use of power and its corresponding violent capacity. And it is a violent film–one of the first images we see is of a predatory wolf being shot as it stalks a herd of sheep. That violence punctuates the desolation of a beautifully shot landscape, and it is to the credit of the filmmakers–Sheridan, cinematographer Ben Richardson, editor Gary D. Roach, and the cast–that the film is taut with its constant potential. But where Lambert finds a personal redemption in holding that very power against those who wield it irresponsibly, it’s hard to really say what to make of that conclusion when the power itself seems to be the, by implication at least, insurmountable problem.
I’ll repeat that I don’t think this renders the film a failure, but it does make it more difficult and less satisfying than the director’s previous work. It’s worth seeing as part of the continued evolution of a promising filmmaker and for its understated central performance. And it’s engaging throughout–the film is anything but boring, but it comes with a lot of baggage that the final payoff doesn’t quite address to even the morally and intellectually complex degree I’ve been led to expect by this developing auteur.