[This is a re-post of my review from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Wind River opens today in limited release.]
Over the past couple of years, Taylor Sheridan has emerged as one of the best screenwriters working today. His screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water are both thoughtful, intense spins on both the crime genre and the Western, and in the hands of gifted directors like Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively, they’ve become outstanding films. To close out his “frontier trilogy”, Sheridan makes his directorial debut for Wind River, and while he isn’t as successful as Villeneuve or Mackenzie, he still crafts a captivating drama that’s thoughtful, somber, and gripping.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a wildlife officer working in the snowy mountains of Wyoming when he comes across the body of a young, Native American woman. The woman’s death brings back harsh emotions for the taciturn Lambert since she was a friend of his own late daughter, who was also found dead in the snow. It also brings up his complicated relationship with the Native Americans living in the area since Cory married a Native American woman, but their marriage fell apart after the death of their daughter, although Cory is still trying to be a good father to their young son. When FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in to investigate the crime scene, she, along with Ben (Graham Greene), an officer working Indian Affairs, request Cory’s help in tracking down the killer.
There’s part of me that wishes the protagonist of Wind River was a Native American because we get no stories told from their point of view. And yet that demand overlooks what Sheridan is trying to do with his take on the “Cowboys and Indians” narrative. Rather than try to reposition the Cowboy as a white knight who is the only person who can bring justice to Native American people, Wind River is trying to stress compassion and understanding between two sides that have typically been portrayed as diametrically opposed in popular media. Like he did with Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan is playing with classic Western tropes and putting them through a modern lens.
If you take Wind River on its own terms, it’s a fascinating look at the needs and limits of compassion and grief. While it derives its energy from being a hard-boiled crime film, its heart comes from watching a man try to navigate how much he’s capable of helping and how even though he may be an expert hunter and tracker, he can’t fix the world or heal any grand injustices. However, through the lens of the Cowboys and Indians sub-genre, Sheridan shows the two sides don’t need to be at war even though the frontier remains unforgiving.
Unfortunately, while Wind River has the same strong script we’ve come to expect from Sheridan, the movie is limited by his lack of experience. The movie is competently made and there are definitely signs that Sheridan could grow into a terrific director, but he’s not yet operating at the same level as Villenueve or Mackenzie. In the hands of a more visionary and experienced director, Wind River could have been something special, but as it stands, it’s a movie that’s well made but rarely memorable in terms of style.
That being said, I’m eager to see Sheridan grow and develop as a director because his screenwriting talent is second to none, and he’s putting out some of the most interesting scripts today. If Wind River is the last time Sheridan explores the American frontier in a modern context, it’s a worthy closing chapter to his trilogy and one that’s well worth seeing if you’re willing to take it on its own terms.