Wind River finds screenwriter Taylor Sheridan taking the director’s chair with thrilling results and stellar performances from Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner.
Wind River opens with a terrifying shot of a woman running barefoot through the snowy and isolated landscape of Wyoming. She falls to her knees. We never see who or what is chasing her. All we know is that whatever she’s running from must be terrifying enough for her to endure this frozen hellscape.
Of the three screenplays in Sheridan’s impressive career, Wind River is certainly the darkest. Though Sicario and Hell or High Water are certainly intense, they have their moments of levity. He creates characters with quirks and gives them breezy dialogue to carry you through the exposition. However, with Wind River, he strips the screenplay down to the bare bones to create an efficient, slow-burning, humanist crime drama.
While on a hunt for a predator that has been killing his father-in-law’s cattle, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner, great as usual) stumbles upon the body of the young woman we see in the movie’s opening. Her identity is revealed to be 18-year old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), a resident of the reservation, which causes tribal police — in the form of police chief Ben (Graham Greene, an absolute delight) — and FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Banner is motivated but clearly inexperienced in the job — she doesn’t even come prepared with a coat for the subzero temperatures.
Eventually, it’s uncovered that Natalie was assaulted and murdered. Realizing that she may be in over her head, Banner enlists the help of Lambert and Ben. However, it’s quickly apparent that the case is more complicated than it seems and added emotional stakes make it even harder on the trio. Those stakes mostly come from a brief, but powerful performance from Gil Birmingham as Natalie’s father.
By taking place on a Native American Reservation, Wind River could have gone one of two ways. It could have simply taken advantage of the people and environment to just be a “case of the week” procedural in a different setting. Instead, it went the other way and became, from my limited perspective, a balanced crime drama that is of its time and setting. The movie is as much about the crime as it is about the experience of being a Native American in this country — from the complicated jurisdictions to drug abuse rates.
At one point, one of the Native American characters — I’ll leave them unnamed to preserve the plot — is performing a ritual. When asked how they knew how to do the face paint, they respond, “I made it up. There’s no one left to teach me.” I think one of Sheridan’s greatest talents as a screenwriter is coming up with lines of dialogue that punch you in the gut. Well, that line is a prizefighter throwing a right jab straight at your heart. Though there is a murder at the middle of Wind River, the real crime is the one our country continues to treat the people we took this land from.
The characters Sheridan creates in Wind River aren’t his most interesting. However, Renner and Olsen breathe life into Banner and Lambert and move them past just being two-dimensional archetypes. In particular, though, Olsen strikes an emotional chord by balancing her character’s conflicting motivations: the chip on her shoulder as an FBI agent and her disgust at the cruelty of life and humanity. It’s one of the best performances of her already stellar career.
Wind River is as much of a gritty crime thriller as it is a character study. While the former sometimes suffers in service of the latter, the film is, in the end, greater than the sum of its parts. Between Sicario, Hell or High Water, and now, Wind River, Taylor Sheridan has proved himself one of the most exciting screenwriters working today. However, this movie also proves that with some growth, her can also be one of the most exciting directors. What he pulled off with Wind River was no easy feat. He’s one to watch.