'Wind River': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A strong directorial debut.

'Hell or High Water' scribe Taylor Sheridan makes his debut behind the camera with this Wyoming-set mystery starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

After stirring legitimate excitement with his dynamic scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan makes his directorial debut with Wind River, which similarly delivers shrewd insights into troubling American social issues in a punchy, action-and-violence-filled package. Centered on the rape and murder of a teenage girl on an impoverished Indian reservation in Wyoming, the film yanks the viewer to attention with its keen sensitivity to the rough winter conditions and limited prospects faced by the locals. It also features one of Jeremy Renner’s best recent performances, but does fall into some traps when it ventures into Tarantino and Peckinpah territory. Decent mid-range box-office seems in store, given a good campaign and launch.

Renner scores convincingly and, at times, movingly as that increasing rarity (at least onscreen), a capable man who’s good at his job — he works for the wildlife office — is empathetically concerned about others and tries to do the right thing. But he’s also got tragedy and shortcomings in his past, most notably the loss of his teenage daughter a few years back and the subsequent breakup of his marriage. He seems to have dealt with it all as well as any man could.

The startling opening follows a teenage girl running across the snow-covered wastes, and it isn’t much later that Renner’s Cory Lambert, while out in pursuit of big cats that have been killing off livestock, discovers the girl’s body; she is barefoot, the exposure having caused her death, but she had also been violated.

Local authorities become involved and so does the FBI in the person of Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), from the Las Vegas office, who rolls up in a giant black SUV and whose abilities clearly don’t include tracking evidence in the wild, driving snowmobiles or communicating comfortably with more down-home folks. Sheridan neatly delineates these very different types of law enforcement personnel who, recognizing a well-equipped can-do guy when they see one, readily defer to Cory, who’s not even a lawman, as they begin their pursuit of the killer.

The dead girl’s parents (the very fine Gil Birmingham and Tantoo Cardinal) haven’t a clue as to who might have done it. But then there’s their other kid, a derelict drug addict whose little gang is the scum of the reservation. The worst of that bunch, a cackling cretin named Pete (James Jordan), has sometimes worked for an oil company operating on Indian land, and pieces begin moving into place that might eventually help bring a solution to the disturbing crime bubble to the surface.

Obliged to work together, Cory and Jane manage to make it work as soon as Jane realizes she can learn a lot from this fine, dependable man, one who himself has lost a beloved teenage daughter to a similar crime, which has never been solved and caused the breakup of his marriage. In a quiet, direct and tearful way, Renner movingly recounts this tragedy and how his character managed to deal with it in a scene quite removed from the sort of thing the actor has usually been asked to do in films.

Matters take on a different tone when the law confronts the rough men working at the distant oil dig and they end up in a 10-man Mexican standoff, with everyone yelling and just bursting to unload some lead. So directly does this call Tarantino to mind that it’s hard not to laugh, although it’s quite uncertain if humor was the intent. The violence against women and the devil-may-care attitude toward life and death exhibited by others later on summon up shades of Peckinpah. Given that others have been down these homage-laden paths before, it’s tempting to suggest that Sheridan is good enough on his own and needn’t try to bolster his own work by devoting himself to such obvious homages.

The same goes for the ultimate villain of the piece, who is such an over-the-top creation so as not to really belong with the more realistic characters that drive the central drama. In the last stretch, it seems to become almost another film, one devoted more to melodrama and balancing the ledger sheet of right and wrong than to maintaining ambiguities, the latter virtue having been a hallmark of both Sicario and Hell or High Water. On balance, it would appear that Sheridan may not be a born director but is likely astute enough to learn on the job.

In addition to the estimable Renner, the other actors — many of them with familiar, if not instantly recognizable faces — are alive to the occasion.   

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production company: Voltage Pictures
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Asbille, Teo Briones, Tantoo Cardinal, Matthew Del Negro, Hugh Dillon, Julia Jones, James Jordan, Eric Lange, Norman Lehnert, Mason Davis, Graham Greene, Martin Sensmeier
Director-screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Producers: Matthew George, Basil Iwanyk, Wayne Rogers
Executive producers: Erica Lee, Jonathan Deckter, Nicholas Chartier, Braden Aftergood, Christopher H. Warner
Director of photography: Ben Richardson
Production designer: Neil Spisak
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Gary D. Roach
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis

Not rated, 111 minutes