The Critic’s Corner
September 11-17, 2017
By David Laprad
Late summer officially belongs to filmmaker Taylor Sheridan. After writing the script for the September 2015 release “Sicario” (for which he received a Writer’s Guild of America Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay) and the August 2016 release “Hell or High Water” (for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay), he singlehandedly redeems a month of dreadful late summer releases with the skillfully penned “Wind River,” a slow-burn murder mystery and his most poignant work yet.
Don’t bring any tissues, though. Although beautifully written, “Wind River” blends the poetry of Sheridan’s words with the kind of violence that must make Quentin Tarantino smile and press rewind.
One of the hallmarks of Sheridan’s writing is the down-to-earth quality of his characters. FBI agent Kate Macer in “Sicario” was good at her job but also relatable to audiences as the war against drugs overwhelmed her. In “Hell or High Water,” the motive of two brothers who rob a series of small-town banks is so practical, I wondered if I’d do the same thing if I were in their shoes.
In “Wind River,” Sheridan delivers another flesh and blood creation in the form of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Our first glimpse of Lambert is the sniper’s bullet he puts through a wolf who’s approaching several sheep.
In Sheridan’s hands, Lambert isn’t a hunter; he’s someone who kills predators. This notion plays an important part in how Lambert handles certain situations in “Wind River.”
Lambert is tracking a lion through the snow-covered expanse of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming when he discovers the frozen, barefoot corpse of a young woman splayed in the vast blanket of white. As he leans in to look at the girl’s blood-caked face, he realizes he knows her – 18-year-old Natalie Hanson – and her family. Such is life on the thinly populated reservation.
The FBI sends rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to determine if Hanson was killed. The medical examiner finds evidence of blunt trauma and sexual violence but says she died from exposure. (It’s more complicated and horrific than that, but I’m keeping it simple for this review.)
Determined to find and apprehend the person responsible for Hanson’s death, Banner recruits Lambert to help her read the clues her untrained eyes can’t see on the snow and in the woods.
There aren’t many residents on the reservation, though, so there can’t be many suspects. One of the things that surprised me as I watched “Wind River” was how easily the investigators piece together what happened. At one point, the tribal police chief even exclaims, “This case is solving itself!”
So, what does Sheridan do with the rest of his one hour and 47-minute running time? He weaves connections between people and examines their relationships. He explores themes ranging from the violence that can spring up in a small community to the varied nature of justice. And he employs the vastness of the Wyoming wilderness as a metaphor for the emptiness than can drive people to do terrible things.
When the violence comes, it’s sudden and brief. Sheridan seems to be more interested in the quiet, contemplative moments. In one such scene, Lambert tries to console Hanson’s father by telling him to embrace his pain so he can someday move on to enjoying the memory of his late daughter.
Like the father, Lambert lost a daughter in a senseless tragedy, so he understands what he’s experiencing. The two men are friends as well, so Lambert’s stark advice doesn’t come from a stranger.
Renner’s performance in this scene in touching. I enjoyed seeing the human side of his acting, which is rarely glimpsed in his blockbuster roles in “The Avengers” and “Mission Impossible.”
Sheridan added one more category to his filmography with “Wind River” – director. Although an accomplished writer and experienced actor (if you’ve seen “Sons of Anarchy,” you might remember his turn as Deputy Chief David Hale), “Wind River” marks his first tour of duty behind the camera.
Sheridan clearly doesn’t have the same depth of experience as the other directors who have filmed his screenplays. Denis Villeneuve, who helmed “Sicario,” would have pulled better visuals out of the snow-white setting, and David Mackenzie, who brought “Hell or High Water” to life, would have done a better job of staging the action and reshot the awkward moments in the actor’s performances.
In a few instances, the way Sheridan shot a scene seemed to force Olsen into a less-than-graceful delivery of her lines. That said, his directing is competent enough to convey the strength of his writing.
I never blinked or fidgeted while I was watching “Wind River,” despite its languid pace. I believe that’s a testimony to the power of Sheridan’s words and the work of his actors.
I also believe it’s a sign that Sheridan’s superb early work was no flash in the pan. As he shows with each new screenplay, he’s one of the writers who’s producing the best work this decade of film has to offer.
I just hope he either improves as a director or goes back to entrusting his pages to auteurs.
Three out of four stars. Rated R for violence, rape, disturbing images and language.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.