"You're looking for clues, but you're missing all the signs."
It’s always worrying when writers make the transition to directing. Whilst you would think any writer than understands the medium of film enough to craft a good script should be automatically competent behind the camera as well. But too often writers simply have not been able to make the jump to directing. Therefore, given that Taylor Sheridan’s previous screenplays have been brought to life by the likes of Denis Villnueve and David Mackenzie, by choosing to direct his own screenplay he has a lot to live up to.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a wildlife officer who finds the body of an 18-year-old woman on an American Indian reservation in snowy Wyoming. When the autopsy reveals that she was raped, FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to investigate. Teaming up with Lambert as a guide, the duo soon find that their lives are in danger while trying to solve the mystery of the teen's death.
It is extraordinary that a film like ‘Wind River’ is only the second feature from its director. The skill and craftsmanship behind it speaks of filmmaking experience that act to convey this sense of world weariness that permeates the movie. Along with ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell or High Water’, the film forms Sheridan’s New Frontier trilogy and like the previous two it paints a broader social statement as well as being a highly involving crime thriller. The narrative is superb but it’s only scratching the surface of what the movie is really about.
What makes the intertwining of themes and plot in ‘Wind River’ so invigorating is how one feels essential to the other. There are no glaring twists within the actual mystery that drives the film, but due to the hostile and isolated nature of the environment in which it takes place any effort to solve the crime becomes infinitely more difficult. Sheridan is keen to point out how little the FBI seem to care about actually solving this case and how the existing resources to do so are completely inadequate. The very landscape feels like its own character and Sheridan’s direction reflects that with many long, meditative shots of the snow covered environment as well as his fondness to frame his characters within it.
But as for the characters themselves, their personalities become just as much a part of the films plot as anything else. As an inexperienced outsider Banner has to make adjusting to the world around her whilst she tries to understand it well enough to solve a murder there. Even though Lambert understands it there is an unspoken hostility towards his being there due to both the broader social implications and his own personal history there. Not only does each aspect make the overall development of each character all the more engaging, but it provides more obstacles that fuel to narrative.
It also allows for its actors to stretch themselves in their work. As the newly introduced FBI agent Olson’s performance feels reminiscent of Jodie Foster in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, innocent and vulnerable to a certain degree but also punctuated with a steely determination that marks her as a strong and empathetic presence. Jeremy Renner fully conveys a world weary persona from his tone of voice to his entire psychical stance. It’s a character type that Renner has played before but never to such an impactful degree as he does here.
But most of this is down to the screenplay, where ‘Wind River’ transcends good writing to become something more haunting is through Sheridan’s impeccable direction. Save for a few shots that feel inconsistent to the style throughout the rest of the movie and some bursts of action that are filmed in a way that makes them confusing to follow, this is a fantastically directed film. Despite the film being a more focussed on introspection and despair than cheap thrills, Sheridan never fails to make his mystery feel involving through his directing prowess. There is an intensity to each scene, even the quieter ones as the camera pushes closer its subjects, as if asking us to scrutinize them and their place in the world they inhabit. He draws our attention to the sheer emptiness of the landscape and makes it feel uncomfortably claustrophobic, as if there is no escape from the frozen wasteland that hides a killer.
Its subject matter may be harsh and the deeper themes are bleak to say the least. But somehow ‘Wind River’ never feels like a lecture to the audience. It’s central plot is involving but it’s also easy to see the broader picture that lies within it. Though I would say Sheridan’s main talents still lie in writing (as the screenplay is truly a work of art) his direction puts ‘Wind River’ on par with ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell or High Water’.
Thematically rich and haunting in its subject matter, ‘Wind River is an involving, brilliantly staged and socially relevant thriller that shows Taylor Sheridan’s talents as a director.