Over the last two years, Taylor Sheridan has made a name for himself as the writer of two films that, while not massive commercial successes, nevertheless gained widespread critical and audience approval: Sicario and Hell or High Water. Sheridan’s pedigree may make you tempted to take the trek out to see Wind River, currently in theatres. Sheridan’s second film as a director, following the little-seen 2011 horror film Vile, the Wyoming-set crime drama netted Sheridan (who also wrote the script) the Un Certain Regard for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
So… Wind River is good, right? Or at least worth seeing? It’s been getting good reviews. It won a Major Award. It’s from the guy who wrote Hell or High Water, and you like Hell or High Water. It stars Elizabeth Olsen, who you also like, I guess, and Jeremy Renner, who….
This is a note, from me to you. Do not see Wind River. It’s not terrible, but Dunkirk and Atomic Blonde are still in theatres. There are better ways to spend your money. For the price of a movie ticket, you could really go to town at Dairy Queen.
Jeremy Renner stars as Cory Lambert, a wildlife officer working on the Wind River Indian Reservation who, out on his rounds one day, stumbles upon the body of a dead woman named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille). She’s been raped and her lungs have given out, the latter as a result of running barefoot through the snow for several miles in sub-zero temperatures. Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) enters the scene to investigate the murder, but she’s generally unequipped, both for the harsh climate and the hardscrabble reality of life on the res.
What follows is a pretty by-the-book crime drama, as Banner—assisted by Lambert and Ben (Graham Greene), head of the res’ police force—attempts to unravel the mystery of Natalie’s death. There’s a mysterious white boyfriend, an uncooperative medical examiner, and clues under constant threat of being buried under snowdrifts. It’s a noir set in uncaring, unfriendly nature, where instead of dark alleyways and neon light you get the glare of sunlight on a seemingly endless field of snow.
If nothing to write home about, it’s still not awful. You could catch this on HBO and be pretty impressed. Renner gives an adequate performance as a man still grieving from the death of his daughter years earlier under circumstances similar to Natalie’s death-by-exposure. (A bit clunky, as far as storytelling is concerned—would he not have cared about this girl otherwise?) And Olsen elevates rather thin material, bringing steely resolve to what could have been a standard new-kid-on-the-block ingenue. I don’t say this lightly: Olsen’s rocking some real Clarice Starling realness here. The character’s effectiveness comes less from the lines of dialogue Sheridan has her say than the often wordless ways in which Olsen reacts to the roadblocks the plot throws in front of her: clenched jaw frustration when a medical examiner refuses to classify Natalie’s death as a homicide, or a subtle “did you really just” grimace when a male officer attempts to take the reins on her questioning of a suspect. Gil Birmingham, who gave a standout performance in Hell or High Water as the partner of Jeff Bridges’ character, is similarly great here as Natalie’s father.
Unfortunately, as great as Birmingham and Olsen are, they can’t overcome Wind River’s deficiencies. Key among them: Sheridan’s decision to scatter scenes of graphic violence throughout Wind River in a way that comes across as unnecessary at best, exploitative at worst. We’re rolling along in this investigation when—WHAM—there’s Natalie’s grieving mother cutting her arm with what appears to be a razor. Or a flashback to a rape scene. As an attempt to make some sort of point about the harsh reality of Indian reservation life, it feels half-baked and ham-fisted, Sheridan himself seems ill-equipped to tackle such a complex topic.
Cory was married to a Native woman, with whom he had two children. He’s a fixture on the res; he considers himself, and is considered by others, to be a part of the community. But he’s still a white guy, a fact that is pointed out a time or two. Pointed out, but… never really examined. (In fact, one of the people who points it out is immediately undercut by him making a crack about Corey’s daughter, the script thereby rendering him an angry, reactionary dick.) Ditto an end title card that points out that missing persons statistics are kept for every demographic except Native American women. Sheridan appears to think he’s making some thoughtful, important statement, but I honest-to-God don’t get what that statement’s supposed to be. “Life on the res is terrible. People are impoverished. Watch this Native woman get attacked by a bunch of white guys and then raped. Also, here’s a shot of Elizabeth Olsen’s thong-clad ass for no reason whatsoever.” No… thank you? “Gawd, doesn’t life SUCK? It’s all like, violent and shit” ain’t a deep sentiment, Sheridan. I’m sorry, but it isn’t, at least if you’ve left your emo teen days behind you. And in Wind River, the use of gratuitous violence and muddled quasi-philosophizing about how “out here, you either survive or you surrender” renders that sentiment little more than an occasionally effective miserbilist circle-jerk.