Powerful "Wind River" Deals In Both Blood And Compassion

During a Q&A following a recent Arclight Hollywood showing of his latest film “Wind River,” actor-turned-writer-turned-director Taylor Sheridan made a remarkable assertion: that he wrote “Sicario,” “Hell Or High Water,” and “Wind River” over a period of six months. Turning out three screenplays in half a year is nothing to sneeze at, but to write three movies that got made and delivered? It’s a wild feat, with Sheridan’s latest, his directorial debut, capping off a thematically attendant trilogy of films that anyone in the industry would be proud to stand by.

“Wind River” unfolds on the snow-covered Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. A tracker named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is on the trail of some coyotes when he discovers the body of an 18-year-old local girl named Natalie. Natalie froze to death miles from anything of note, without shoes or a winter jacket. Blood splotches on her pants heighten suspicions of homicide. In the face of an impending snowstorm that could cover over crucial evidence, Lambert and Wind River’s Tribal Police Chief (Graham Greene) wait on the feds to show.

But instead of a parade of black Lincolns, the only arrival is greenhorn FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), sent in from Las Vegas; the closest operative to the scene. There will be no cavalry of black suits sent to solve the murder of a young Native American girl; only a tenacious but inexperienced agent, a middle-aged police chief, and a steely-eyed sharpshooter.

The superiority of Sheridan’s work here isn’t just in its tautness, although it is an unusually suspenseful crime thriller that delivers some sternum-rattling gunplay. Its true victory is in its empathy, interested not only in revenge, but in justice. Natalie is so much more than a likely homicide victim; her innocence and humanity pulses throughout the pic, felt deeply by Lambert – dealing with a significant loss of his own – and, ultimately, by those who took her life. There are no effortless answers in “Wind River,” but there are effortless emotions, with Sheridan’s masterful ear for dialogue making the melancholy of it all feel vital instead of maudlin.

The cast is uniformly superb. Renner and Olsen have worked together previously in Marvel’s “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and “Captain America: Civil War,” but here their chemistry is so much more fully formed, and not at all in a romantic way. Instead of a trite “two loners looking for love” subplot that could have so easily been, Lambert and Banner are just two people who learn to care about each other – and a young girl who’s been tragically taken away from her family.

Actor Gil Birmingham, who was so good playing off Jeff Bridges in “Hell Or High Water,” makes a beautiful turn here as Natalie’s father, while Jon Bernthal (“Fury”) makes a crater-sized impact in less than ten minutes of screen time as Natalie’s mysterious boyfriend. The surplus of memorable characters and performances isn’t just strong evidence that Sheridan’s recent string of success is no fluke; it suggests that his ceiling as a director could be sky-high.

“Wind River” is unlikely to receive the awards of attention of Sheridan’s previous work – it’s less flashy and not as technically accomplished, marred by some shoddy snow effects – but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile for moviegoers. It’s stout, confident work that’s conversely intense and moving, its 111 minutes breezing by before we’re forced to say a somber goodbye to its leads. Taylor Sheridan doesn’t have to be the showiest writer or director working to keep his streak going; he only has to maintain his current level of smarts and heart to ensure a place as one of Hollywood’s most compelling creative voices. Whether it’s on the page, behind the camera, or hopefully, both.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: August 4, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, James Jordan
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language)