This crime drama cements Sheridan’s worldview, but it isn’t enough to confirm him as a great filmmaker.
Television actor Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy) made the unlikely transition to prestige screenwriter after penning a pair of acclaimed Oscar-nominated dramas with Sicario (2015), directed by Denis Villenuve, and Hell or High Water (2016), directed by David Mackenzie. Up next, naturally: The director’s chair.
Wind River, an intense thriller in the same vein as his previous efforts, isn’t technically his debut—he directed a horror film in 2011 that nobody seems to remember seeing or even hearing about—but it is an arrival of sorts. The film was among the most anticipated entries in the “Un Certain Regard” section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Of course, screenwriting isn’t filmmaking. The success of Sicario and Hell or High Water had as much, if not more, to do with their directorial personalities than Sheridan’s written words. The hype could have easily been misplaced.
Wind River cements Sheridan’s worldview, but it isn’t enough to confirm him as a great or enduring filmmaker. His screenplays have a deeply pronounced view of society and its shortcomings. They depict people on both sides of the law equally drawn to violence and corruption. At the center of the action is raw emotion expressed with a kind of muted lyricism that often belies his pulpy sensibilities. He’s a genre filmmaker with the mind of a poet. Filled with abstract moments of beauty, it underlines his most prevalent themes: unseen cruelty, disillusionment, inescapable legacies, people willingly and unwillingly bound by duty and the punishing indifference of nature. But as these ideas swarm about, they never coalesce into anything overtly meaningful.The movie is entertaining but unimpressive, and its various flaws are ultimately its most memorable aspects.
The film, set in Wyoming, opens in the dead of night as a bloodied Native American woman runs for her life across a snowy, sub-zero terrain. Her frozen body, buried deep in the remote wilderness, is later uncovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a grizzled federal wildlife officer who works on the eponymous Indian reservation. He recognizes the victim as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the 18-year-old friend of his daughter who recently died on the same reservation under similar circumstances: freezing and alone in the woods.
Sheridan places a special emphasis on the eerie splendor and ice-cold brutality of winter in Wyoming, which can be swarmed by a blizzard one moment and baked in blinding sunlight the next. The elements are just one of the many hurdles facing Las Vegas FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who’s dispatched to the scene and immediately met with contempt and suspicion. Dismayed by the underprepared local police force, which is led by the overwhelmed but well-meaning Bureau of Indian Affairs cop Ben (Graham Greene), she leans on Cory to help navigate the terrain and deal with the locals.
The development of Cory and Jane’s partnership is central to the narrative, but it’s also its biggest issue. Sheridan has received deserved flak for his poorly written female characters. The women in his films, whenever they happen to appear on screen, tend to be depicted as wayward and clueless; when they do possess professionalism, it’s only to a certain degree, like Jane in this film. Much like Sicario’s Kate (Emily Blunt), she is an FBI agent whose considerable ability and overall intrigue is gradually overshadowed by her male counterparts until she’s virtually removed from the film altogether. The female protagonists in Sheridan’s films can only go as far as men are willing to take them. It’s no surprise, then, that Cory enjoys the film’s redemptive moment while Jane lies recovering in a hospital bed.
Sheridan’s films are too sympathetic to the negative impact of corrupt systems on marginalized groups to call him a misogynist, but he does take a misguided approach to illustrating the cruel way society treats women. Sexist attitudes are prevalent in Wind River, but they go unchecked and unexamined. In one scene, Jane bumps heads with a condescending coroner who can’t technically label Natalie’s death a homicide because she died from the excess fluid in her lungs caused by the cold mountain air, not the vicious beating given to her by her assailant. It’s a nit-picky decision that needlessly complicates Jane’s investigation, but he clearly does not take her seriously. The coroner also noticeably refuses to reciprocate her dismay when he reveals that Kate was raped just before she died. If Jane was a man, the coroner would probably play ball, but he knows Jane must accept his decision, and he lords it over her. All Jane can do is stomp out, and we share in her frustration.
In other words, Sheridan presents accurate depictions of sexism as a representation of his tacit disapproval, which fits into his larger examination of how life’s unfair circumstances push hard against an individual. Deep despair connects the film’s characters, each of whom feels alone and forgotten in this isolated wilderness. Sheridan is uniquely skilled in conjuring mood, but with Wind River, he leans too heavily into anguish, exploiting the suffering of his characters and the suffering of real people who are like them. Wind River is as classy and formally accomplished as action thrillers get these days, but the thriller is the least sympathetic genre, a limitation that no amount of adept plotting or pristine cinematography can overcome.