Taylor Sheridan‘s previous two screenplays contained deep seated nihilism conflating with tangible violence, while plenty of moral grey areas examined. It’s no surprise then, that his major directorial debut – He had previously directed a low budget horror/thriller titled Vile – is another exercise in the darkness in humanity erupting in dark, violent ways.
Wind River takes Sheridan this time to the sweeping, snowy corners of Wyoming, where a girl is found bloody and dead miles from the nearest cabin, conspicuously not wearing any shoes. If this sounds like your typical thriller set up, you’d be right. Wind River is a well crafted, absorbing film. It’s also pretty much everything we’ve seen before in the genre.
Considering the quality of Sheridan’s two previous films he worked on, this is a slight step down. Where Sicario examined US foreign policy in the post-9/11 world and Hell Or High Water had something to say about the affect of the global recession, Wind River is “just” a solid thriller.
That isn’t to say that films that are “about” something are inherently better than films that simply want to be, say, a genre piece, but Sheridan’s previous work found its power in the real life ramifications hiding under the layers of already excellent thrillers.
Wind River is a very solid thriller but doesn’t have much to say, or much to add to an already bloated genre, although it is worth noting that the film does raise awareness to the violence toward Native American women, and how the FBI does not have specific statistics relating to how many Native American women have gone missing.
Perhaps it’s the expectations from writing two expertly delivered screenplays in an era where art and politics are conflating more closely than ever, but Wind River ultimately feels like a tiny waste of Sheridan’s immense talents, at least with the pen.
Sheridan clearly is as adept behind the camera as he is on the page, the film is never short on atmosphere and keeps a tight focus throughout, and there’s enough moments here for a good film. But that might be the problem: it’s a film of moments.
There’s a few great throat-grabbing setpieces and stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are excellent, but take a step back and it’s easier to see that there isn’t a whole lot of originality here.
The mystery isn’t particularly compelling and while both lead actors are terrific, their characters are the type we’ve seen in this kind of film a hundred times. Renner plays the bruised local man struggling with his past, Olsen the out-of-town FBI agent who’s the only one on hand to help solve the case, with the viewer playing the eye-rolling onlooker wondering why these character dynamics haven’t been updated.
The best aspect of the whole experience is probably the Wyoming setting, which is arguably the most compelling “character” in the film, as we’re left to witness the complications of lives lived within prominent isolation and the insidious effects it can have on people and groups who can take control of hidden pockets of space without much risk of running into the law.
It’s easier to focus on the negatives of a film that contains many tropes often seen in the thriller genre that preceded it, but that shouldn’t be the sole focus. Wind River is certainly a good film that suffers slightly by lacking the originality expected from something being labelled as one of the thrillers of the year.
There’s moments here that work; gunshots crack through the expanse of the snowy terrain with viciousness that demands a loud, big screen experience, there’s a welcome addition of blunt honestly combined with genuine compassion when it comes to dealing with a familial tragedy, and as a whole, the film works. But all in all it’s a very well executed version of a standard thriller, which gives it a ceiling.
From a formal standpoint it’s impressive, and Sheridan will likely get plenty more opportunities to direct, but Wind River seems destined to be an experience not unlike the brief scene within the film where characters are forced to ride a snowmobile at 80 miles an hour in freezing conditions: Pretty fun, perhaps even exhilarating while you’re on it, but probably not something you’ll want to indulge in again.
Wind River is in cinemas now.