The writer of Sicario and Hell Or High Water has made the move to the director’s chair, and his debut is firmly entrenched in the western-noir hybrid genre his screenplays have championed. It’s also strong evidence that the director is yet to develop his own true voice, clinging to the shadows of the directors who’ve previously helmed his work.
When game tracker Cory (Jeremy Renner) stumbles upon the body of a young Native American woman deep in the snowdrifts of the Wind River Indian Reservation, he reluctantly teams up with Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), the fish-out-of-water FBI agent sent to investigate the murder.
It’s a given, but Taylor Sheridan is clearly well versed in the western – with its unerring quiet and devotion to landscape, Wind River is, at its best, loosely reminiscent of the masterful No Country For Old Men. The violence here is also similar: the tension lingers in the air long before the wolf strikes in short, sudden bursts. And Sheridan’s writing, as ever, is strong and poetic, even if over-reliant here on exposition – it’s as if he’s whittled himself the crutch to lean on as director.
He’s blessed with his cast – Renner has never been better, given the chance to gruff up and dig deep into Cory’s undercurrent of grief. Olsen’s Jane is a little more two-dimensional, but the platonic chemistry between her and Cory is strong (this isn’t Renner and Olsen’s first rodeo, after all). The Native American cast are excellent across the board, with Gil Birmingham’s bereaved father Martin a true standout – his gentle moment at the film’s end, adorned in face paint, is the film’s lasting image.
Sheridan’s writing, as ever, is strong and poetic, even if over-reliant here on exposition – it’s as if he’s whittled himself the crutch to lean on as director.
But therein lies the issue – this is, emphatically, a story about Native American pain that nevertheless rests on the shoulders of white characters, however well realised they may be. The film’s closing statistics bite hard – very, very hard – but Cory’s loss is given more airtime than his Native American counterparts. There’s still a divide there. And while Beasts Of The Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson continues to collect startling and powerful compositions for his portfolio, there’s a sense we’ve seen this before. Cory and Jane’s rapport is pure Sicario; the discovery of the body similar to Llewelyn Moss finding the scene of the shootout. A sequence of sexual violence is shot in needlessly graphic fashion, as if the audience could not understand the horror of it without seeing it realised.
Wind River is as bitterly cold as the mountains it’s named for; achingly sad as the history of its residents. It’s a fine addition to the genre, but simply a stepping stone to bigger and better things from Sheridan.
Wind River is in cinemas now.