2017, R, 107 mins.
Elizabeth Olsen as Jane Banner / Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert / Jon Bernthal as Matt / Martin Sensmeier as Chip / Julia Jones as Wilma Lambert / Graham Greene as Ben / Kelsey Asbille as Natalie Hanson / Matthew Del Negro as Dillon
Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan
The new fact-based murder mystery thriller WIND RIVER once again champions screenwriter Taylor Sheridan as a soulful and talented force in American cinema, especially for how he deals with flawed and tragic characters set against the foreboding backdrop of frontier life.
screenplays - whether it be the drug thriller SICARIO
or last year's superbly rendered modern western HELL
OR HIGH WATER (for which he rightfully received a Best Original
Screenplay Oscar nomination) - are all thoughtfully humanistic in terms of
honing in on wounded personas that battle with their own respective
personal demons and anxieties. His
two previous films and now WIND RIVER (which he also directs in his
feature film debut) form a penetratingly enthralling thematic connective
tissue as a direct result, creating a pseudo western trilogy arc.
Even though they all follow decidedly different narratives and settings, this trio of films nevertheless have a
commonality is showcasing Sheridan as a master of literate thrillers that
pack a visceral punch.
Gone is the sun
bleached and inhospitably dry vistas of the southern U.S. in HELL OR HIGH
WATER, which WIND RIVER supplants with the frigidly cold artic tundra of
Wyoming. Sheridan creates a
compelling visual foil here from his previous scripted effort, but his characters in
both films seem equally haunted and obsessively driven.
Set specifically in the Wind River Indian reservation, the film
opens shockingly with the eerie sight of a young Native woman - apparently
fleeing for her life while running barefoot and partially exposed in the
snow - that eventually succumbs to the cold and freezes to death.
She's later discovered to be a local 18-year old resident of the
reservation (Kelsey Asbille) by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Cory
Lambert (in a career high performance of soft spoken power by Jeremy
Renner). While he inspects
the body he begins to easily suggest that there is more to her death than
freezing, which is evident by the appearance of blood around her groin.
Cory seems to
have a deeply rooted and initially unrevealed personal stake in perusing
the actual culprits of this heinous crime, and more so than his
occupational duties of ensuring the safety of the reservation and its livestock
from hostile wildlife. Seeing
as there is enough reasonable foul play to involve the FBI, a rookie agent
shows up in the form of Jane Banner (a dependably stalwart Elizabeth
Olson), a Florida native stationed in Las Vegas that clearly has never
been assigned a case in subzero conditions, let alone has lived in such
climates. Jane makes up for
her naiveté about her new environment by being headstrong and
unwaveringly determined to get to the bottom of this murder, even though
the indigenous locals consider her a joke.
Realizing that she'll require the expert tracking services of Cory,
he agrees to team up with this FBI greenhorn to find the guilty party
before the blowing winds and snow cover up all available evidence.
WIND RIVER, as
mentioned, has the aura of a mythical western set in contemporary society,
but it creates a whole other immersive layer of intrigue in exploring a
region of America that infrequently gets explored in movies.
Working with the brilliant cinematographer Ben Richardson (whom
created the ethereally hypnotic and rugged expanses of BEASTS OF THE
SOUTHERN WILD), Sheridan creates a chilly verisimilitude
throughout WIND RIVER that allows you to feel every flake of snow
and every footprint hitting it while the wintry howls of wind seem to be
penetrating the lungs of these shivering characters.
You gain a sense throughout the film that this unforgivable
environment reeks havoc on everyone's mind, body, and soul to the point
where they don't believe they'll even escape this untamable weather.
People here don't try to conquer these conditions, but rather just
try to eek out an existence in, as one character puts it, "the
silence and snow."
his evocative eye for visuals here with his intuitive knack for investing
in all his characters that populate this film.
In WIND RIVER we get a highly sobering wakeup call to reservation
life and how these people live on societal margins, often having to fend
for themselves while deeply distrusting any encroaching white person (with
Cory being the exception). The
film is also highly rare as far as whodunit thrillers are concerned in the
sense that it's somewhat less obligated by its police procedural elements
and is more invested in individual characters and their respective arcs of
redemptive change. The overall scripting
trajectory favors a slow burn approach to relaying all of the particulars
of the crime (sans one late flashback scene that explicitly spells out what
exactly happened to that murdered girl), and Sheridan's trusting of his
audience's attention spans and patience with his material is refreshing.
The gradual build-up of simmering tension over the course of WIND
RIVER pays off handsomely, especially when the film erupts into volcanic
bursts of violence later on that's legitimately jolting and well earned.
Sheridan is an
economical poet with dialogue as well, especially for how he lets his
plainspoken characters speak minimally with few works, but with few words
that are richly textured all on their own and speak volumes towards the
shared misery of these people. No more is this true than with a few key supporting players,
like Graham Greene's pragmatically spoken reservation sheriff that's seen
so much heartache and misery during his life that he hardly needs to
embellish it with words when a melancholic stare says it all.
Especially potent is Gil Birmingham in a small, but emotionally
ravaging role as the victim's deeply proud and outwardly stoic, but
inwardly distressed father. He
also appeared in HELL OR HIGH WATER giving one of the most brutally
honest monologues in recent movie history as his law enforcement officer
lamented on how his people have been uprooted for centuries by white
interests. Birmingham is only
in a few scenes in WIND RIVER, but when he appears he commands the camera
and our interest in ways that few supporting actors are able to.
smart writing extends to, of course, the lead characters as well, and I
admired Sheridan's tactful restraint in his handling of the relationship
between the FBI agent and her tracker partner.
Jane and Cory are most definitely cut from different cloths and are
both limitlessly cunning people, but they also have a shared understanding
that they respectively need each other's skill sets to see the murder case
through to successful fruition and finality.
Plus, Sheridan resists obligatory
genre and scripting contrivances of having the pair hit it off
romantically. There's very
little room for a developing intimate relationship in WIND RIVER between
these two. More thoughtfully, they're just two professionals that need to
work together to get the job done. The
fact that they're attractive members of the opposite sex is redundant.
by Olson and Renner are paramount to Sherdian's end game here, and the
former in particular has this manner of playing Jane with a steely eyed
gumption and unwaveringly confident drive that allows her character to come off
as more credibly and well rounded than other similar female characters
would have in lesser films. Renner matches his AVENGERS' co-star's
vigor and presence as
well by crafting one of his most quietly impactful performances of
arguably his career. Cory,
superficially at least, has the profile and mug of a rough and rugged
outdoorsman, and Renner certainly plays him up to such masculine bravado. Yet, he also imbues in Cory an introverted vulnerability
that's steeped in personal tragedy that he can never shake. When this world weary man tearfully relays to Jane his
reasons for joining her on their case it's one of the most searing and
soul crushing speeches of the film. Renner's
careful and minimalist approach in scene after scene like this in WIND
RIVER highlights why a less-is-more tone often hits the right
emotional chords in a film.
I haven't really spoken in vast detail about the particulars of the central murder mystery investigation in the story, which would be best left unspoken and experienced upon viewing the film. WIND RIVER isn't an ostentatiously showy thriller that attracts Academy Award nomination recognition, nor is it the stuff of late summer film season releases, but that's precisely why I so immensely admired it. Sheridan's film is so atypically disciplined, literate, and measured in execution, which is why it works so resolutely and potently well as a solid continuation of his work on HELL OR HIGH WATER and SICARRIO. Even when WIND RIVER manages to achieve a level of closure with its main storyline, it still reminds viewers - with a sparse, yet pointed title card - at the end that the FBI doesn't maintain statistics on missing aboriginal women, whose numbers remain unknown. That shocking indictment - placed overtop of the sad image of Cory and the slain girl's father overlooking isolated and bleak reservation land - achieves a level of stinging truth that so few films endings from 2017 have, which makes WIND RIVER not only one of the summer season's best and overlooked offerings, but also one of the year's finest films.