Taylor Sheridan is quickly becoming a name for which you should be on the lookout when deciding what movie to watch. After writing the screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, he’s making his theatrical directorial debut with Wind River. (He previously directed a direct-to-video horror movie called Vile.) This new film cements Sheridan as a filmmaker worth noticing, and he’s able to bring his unique voice and perspective forward not only in his writing but now in his directing, too.
Wind River is set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming and focuses on a Fish and Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) who teams up with a young FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to solve a murder. A young woman is found, bloodied and frozen, several miles from civilization, and it’s up to these two people, along with the local police force (represented most prominently by Graham Greene), to try to find out how she died and who, if anyone, is responsible.
The challenges they face along the way wind up being some of the ways that Wind River differentiates itself from many similar movies. For instance, since the movie takes place on a reservation, the struggles of its inhabitants are front and center. The FBI sent a near-rookie as its only representation, something that the local police force is very used to. The community gets ignored, and the case would probably be solved rather quickly and easily if sufficient resources were supplied. They’re not. The Wyoming weather, with its piercing wind and intermittent blizzard conditions, also plays a factor.
It’s not a particularly difficult case. Wind River doesn’t treat its central murder as much of a mystery; it instead is more procedural, with its characters following leads and clues until eventually figuring out what happened. The reveal to the audience comes in the form of a jarring time-skip, the only one of its kind in an otherwise straightforward film. Did we need to see what happened? Possibly, but the way it was handled is a little too cute. It takes you out of the experience for a moment—the rest of the movie is incredibly immersive.
Wind River is a great movie. It’s exciting, emotionally resonant, thematically deep, and almost relentlessly bleak.
Showing what happened does, however, hammer home how bleak the whole production is. That’s what Sheridan’s strength is—if you’ve seen Hell or High Water and especially Sicario, you know he isn’t in the business of making happy, light entertainment—and it’s nice to see him take his own screenplay and bring that to us directly. Outside of a couple of funny quips—which, while funny, also offer some commentary on various situations—there’s almost nothing “enjoyable” about Wind River. It’s a dark and depressing experience, one that reminded me a great deal of Snow Angels, at least tonally and in parts thematically.
Of course, as long as you know that going in, it’s not a problem. Many great movies aren’t fun, after all. And Wind River is a great movie. Apart from that small time-skip hiccup, and a bit of clunky dialogue, Wind River is a poignant, relevant, and enthralling movie. It pulls you in and keeps you held under its relentless tone for just under two hours. And it even has a clever bit of symbolism when it comes to a lion’s den. So, you know, pretty much everything you need in a movie.
It also has some strong acting. Jeremy Renner doesn’t get to lead a lot of movies, and performances like the one he gives in Wind River make you wonder why. He has to showcase both a tough exterior and a hurt interior, and it’s a great job. Elizabeth Olsen is good as the young FBI agent, but that’s almost the extent of her character. Graham Greene gets the only laughs, while actors like Jon Bernthal, Gil Birmingham, and Julia Jones are given small, but important, supporting roles.
Wind River is a great movie. It’s exciting, emotionally resonant, thematically deep, and almost relentlessly bleak. It’s not a “fun” watch, but fantastic cinema doesn’t have to be fun. What we have here is a screenwriter being allowed to personally deliver his vision to audiences, and while there are a couple of small missteps along the way, he does an excellent job at doing so. Wind River is nearly a must-see, and it’s a movie I appreciate a great deal.
Conclusion: Wind River is a bleak, but great, movie.
Recommendation: If you’re up for its unrelenting darkness, saddle up and go watch Wind River.