It was around the half-hour mark in Taylor Sheridan’s new film Wind River when I started to deeply miss Roger Deakins. Not because the cinematography in this film is bad or anything — DP Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) does an excellent job capturing the bleakness of the titular Indian reservation, and he doesn’t hesitate from capturing the uncompromising ugliness within Sheridan’s script. But there was always something extra going on in each frame of that film (though I guess anyone’s work could feel plain compared to his). Or perhaps that was director Denis Villeneuve’s doing, and I was misreading the whole thing, but the point remains essential: Wind River is about the straightest adaptation of a Taylor Sheridan script yet, and it reminds us well and good why great screenwriters might not necessarily make the best directors. It’s unrestrained and indulgent, full of each of the quirks that have defined his prior work, and those expecting the mild August uplift of something like Hell or High Water might want to steer clear until colder weather sets in.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Fish and Wildlife Service agent, is hunting lions in the mountains near the Wind River Indian Reservation when he stumbles across a dead body lying frozen in the snow. He and the sheriff (Graham Greene) call in the FBI, who don’t really give a shit and send in a greenie (Elizabeth Olsen) who knows absolutely nothing about the culture or the affairs of the people within. She soon realizes she’s out of her depth, and hires Lambert to help her track the men who committed this horrible murder. But Lambert knows the murdered girl’s father (Gil Birmingham) closely, and he’s pleaded with Lambert to find and kill the men who did this to his daughter (Kelsey Asbille). Lambert himself is struggling with his own demons in this case, and it might push him to the edge. So it’s a pretty standard Neo-Western here, comprised of the standard real-world weariness and genre formalism that Sheridan’s become known for over the course of his screenwriting career.
Renner, here our morally uncompromised sermon-giving protagonist, is good in his role. He’s an absolutely underrated tough guy, perhaps because of his involvement in other franchise features like The Avengers series or the Bourne films, but this is the closest he’s come in a long time to hitting the highs of his career-best work in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. He’s a deeply emotionally-wounded man looking to make things right for a close friend, but that never gets in the way of his capability as a tracker and hunter (though much of this is told to Olsen, not actually seen). There’s a plainness about his skill that’s absolutely appealing, one difficult to imagine original star Chris Pine being able to pull of as well as our lead here does. It also helps, perhaps, that Renner is 10 years that actor’s senior, and can easily pull off the requisite gravitas to play an angst-filled father and look like he’s done so. He’s gone through a great ordeal, and it shows well. Needless to say, there will be countless thinkpieces devoted to explaining why it’s a horrible choice for Sheridan to have cast a white man in the lead in a film about a murder on the Rez, but there are mitigating factors here that complicate beyond stereotypical white-centrism. For one, his character is essentially an author insert: Sheridan lived on a reservation while working as a struggling actor and formed a close bond with the people around him, and if you’re going by the maxim “write what you know,” I imagine that’d be enough. Also, I for one don’t doubt for a second that his goal here is to highlight a series of impossibly difficult real-world issues for a populace that much of the nation has ignored for far too long, especially given the withering facts listed at the end of the film about the disappearance of Native women.
To be fair, though, the women presented here are thinly-written, and it undermines his point a bit. Olson’s arc here is lifted entirely from Emily Blunt’s character in Sicario — the hard-nosed ugly American arm of the state who wanders cluelessly into situations that are clearly above her pay-grade who realizes how wrong she was to do so and changes by the end — but this time her character is not given her proper due, and Olsen can’t ever sell anything beyond the general feeling that she’s out of her element. Her moments with Renner are mostly fine, but a few key ones fail — her frustration with how he handles the case grows irritating at certain points, and her emotional breakthrough at the end of the film doesn’t feel totally earned. It doesn’t help that her character given an awkward extra layer of sexualization, added just after her introduction, and it clouds the air around her for the rest of the runtime (one has to wonder if Blunt or Villeneuve put the kibosh on any such moments in that 2014 film).
And again, that might not be an issue if the film itself weren’t concerned with sexual violence, and it feels like a hanging chad from an earlier draft; one, perhaps, where there wasn’t a flashback to a graphic rape that drops like a thud in the middle of a tense showdown and breaks the atmosphere. This film lives and dies on this sequence: If you think the scene is a necessary evil to prove Sheridan’s greater point, featuring a literal rape of a native by callous trespassing whites, you’ll probably find a lot more profundity here than I did. It’s a weirdly excessive and cruel sequence, and it totally fucks up the narrative, even if we do get an excellent Jon Bernthal monologue at the start of said flashback.
If Sheridan’s film is above all else a study in toxic masculinity and its antidote, it comes up a bit empty. The male characters are given all of the emotional heft, and the women here are almost exclusively venues for violence or unstable or toxic in their own right. Mostly, they’re just dead, the deceased given the Laura Palmer treatment, but without a Fire Walk With Me to let you feel the lack. But the living aren’t in great shape. Note the mother of the deceased: At one point, shown cutting herself with a kitchen knife in her bedroom in grief, and in another, shown curled up in her daughter’s childhood bed until a masculine figure comes along and places a blanket over her. Or the situation Renner’s ex-wife finds herself in — angrily closed off from the world, isolated in a land away from her family — deliberately walling her off from the rest of the plot until Renner needs an outlet to express himself towards. This is a film made in the absence of women, and I’d argue that it’s why it ultimately can’t transcend. Perhaps it would be more justified if the central narrative were a little more complicated or involving. There’s not much of the herky-jerky plot machinations that defined the similarly-sparse Hell or High Water, and it’s much more of a generally open-and-shut case. By the time you first see who did it, you’ll realize how everything is going to go down, and it’s hard not to be a little disappointed by those revelations.
But Wind River shares its greatest asset with that film as well, in the work of the immensely talented Native actor Gil Birmingham, who played Jeff Bridges’ ill-fated partner there and is given significantly more range here. He plays the dead girl’s grief-stricken father, whose family has been shattered in the wake of her murder and who must pick up the pieces and start to mend it back together again. It’s an honest and well-tuned performance, and his moments with Renner are by far the film’s standout sections, especially in an early scene in which the hunter, barely holding back tears of painful empathy, comforts his sobbing friend by giving him words of wisdom he learned from a grief counselor, and it’s a tremendously affecting scene for the two. Sadly, it’s soon diluted — it’s just one of the monologues about grief that Renner has over the course of the film, and it’s one of two moments that doesn’t feel wholly forced by Sheridan’s pen. One wonders what a more sparse film would have looked like, letting these moments marinate instead of trying to get us to the next plot point, but they have an undeniable power unlike anything in his filmography. It’s a shame he got in the way.
Featured image via Sundance Institute. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.