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WIND RIVER (2017) review

August 11, 2017

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written by: Taylor Sheridan
produced by: Elizabeth A. Bell, Peter Berg, Matthew George, Basil Iwanyk & Wayne Rogers
directed by: Taylor Sheridan
rated: R (for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language )
runtime: 111 min.
U.S. release date: August 11, 2017

 

It’s hard to think of another genre screenwriter who’s been doing a consistent bang-up job with each go around, but Taylor Sheridan has certainly proven his mettle with great storylines for “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water”, directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively. His latest, “Wind River”, premiered earlier this year at Sundance, and it’s being described as the final movie in his ‘frontier trilogy’ completes with themes of vengeance and justice set on the fringe of a cruel and (unfortunately) familiar modern-day environment. The three movies may not be populated with the same characters or set in the same locations, but the tone and feel of each easily connects them as cinematic cousins. For “Wind River”, Sheridan takes the helm and displays an assured ability to deliver a movie that can sit confidently alongside his recent highly-regarded films. Then what issues do I have with the film?

The film opens in the snowy mountains of Wyoming, we see U.S. Fish & Wildlife officer, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), warding off a pack of wolves from a herd of sheep with his rifle. There’s been recent reports of mountain lions are thinning of the local herds. Dressed for the cold weather, all in white to blend in with his environment, it’s clear he’s a man who knows his surroundings well and is considered an expert tracker – a hunter, as we’ll hear him explains to others later.

Lambert comes across the dead body of a young woman in the snow one day while working on the Wind River Indian Reservation, mysteriously barefoot and frozen. We know she’s likely been there since the night before. He knows her as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), not just because he knows everyone in the small population of Lander, Wyoming, but because recognizes her as his recently deceased daughter’s best friend. Seeing her body and getting involved in the investigation of this young woman’s murder – who died in an eerily similar manner as Lambert’s daughter three years ago – will pick at some emotional scar tissue that hasn’t healed.

 

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It soon becomes clear that Natalie was raped and beaten, yet managed to flee for her life. Since this occurred on Native American land, the murder calls for federal officials to join local law enforcement. Enter strong-willed FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth OIsen) from Las Vegas, who works the case with Tribal Police chief, Ben (the great Graham Greene, a master at delivering deadpan zingers), but soon realizes she’s going to need Lambert’s tracking and snowmobiling skills to assist the investigation. The two work a relatively straightforward case, that finds them encountering Natalie’s brother and local junkies on the Wind River reservation, as well as some pipeline workers up in the mountains, and along the way we get a story that touches on loss, grief and the acknowledgement of the ache of life.

“Wind River” resembles other mysteries that feature an expert outdoorsman or ones in which a body is found face-down in snowy wilderness, in that the environment and the characters immediately piques our curiosity. We wonder who this lone character is and what led this eighteen-year-old Native American girl to run out into the fatally cold wild. It becomes an engrossing mystery with engaging character who pathos and humor in an affective manner, at times resembling an R-rated amalgam of “Longmire” and “Fargo” episodes. There’s a broken, troubled Native American spirit that whistles in the wind (at times quite literal) throughout Sheridan’s film, sometimes you can hear it echo and moan alongside the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, while other young characters share a certain lament at how stuck and limited they are living on the reservation. Like “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water”, Sheridan is interested in showing how the harshness and unfair cruelty of reality can affect people, regardless of their ethnicity, their skill set or socio-economic status.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson, who delivered some fine work on “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, is most attentive to the Wyoming wintry environment, yet he’s just as concerned with capturing the quiet beauty and brutal cold of nature as he is fixing the camera on the pain, fear and sorrow in a character’s face. Richardson also deftly handles sudden bursts of violence, such as when the investigation leads to the location of a grubby trailer at the foot of a mountain or when building intensity leads to a Tarantino-esque showdown between the law and some paranoid oil workers. These are well-choreographed action sequences in a film that’s not necessarily relying on action to draw on audience.

 

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The draw here is the mystery that Texas-born Sheridan has written and, for the most part, the characters the first-time director inhabit his story with. Renner’s lead role is probably the most fully-realized character in “Wind River”, even if it does feel like there are two sides to him. There’s a side to his character that’s more interesting than the quiet and expert tracker/man of the land we’ve seen before, such as the strained relationship he maintains with his Native American ex-wife (Julia Jones) and his efforts to connect with their young son (Tio Briones). Reiner exudes a palpable degree of awkwardness and regret around his ex and a longing with his son that feels authentic and real. On the flip side, there’s his persona on the job, something he knows and is good at, something he can disappear into. It’s a relatable aspect of this character, but there’s times where transition between the two sides isn’t really handled well. That may be more to do with the material Sheridan provides then it does anything to do with Renner’s performance.

As much as just about every element of “Wind River” is in my wheel house, with its pulpy mashup of western and noir sensibilities, there are some aspects that unfortunately rubbed me the wrong way and I can’t seem to get them out of my mind. First is the way Sheridan writes Olsen’s character. She’s a confident agent, but she comes across a bit like a rookie – showing up unprepared for the cold weather and unsure how to talk with people, like the awkwardness that can be felt when she questions the victim’s father, Martin (a soulful Gil Birmingham “Hell or High Water”) – which feels like an overused depiction of ‘a woman in a man’s world’. Olsen is fine in the role, but I could’ve done with a lot less mansplaining from the male characters she shared the screen with. After a while, her character felt like the kind of female portrayal you’d see in the late 80s/early 90s, where the girl often needs assistance or rescuing from the guy, and that’s too bad.

The other aspect I had a problem with was a sequence that I initially found quite clever and interesting, primarily due to its placement within the film and the revelation it brings. Although it jumps the film’s overall narrative approach, this sequence includes actor Jon Bernthal (who had a small but potent part in Sheridan’s “Sicario”) and reveals all that happened with Natalie that fateful night. There’s an intensity that builds to a nerve-racking level, since we know this girl was raped, but after a while I found myself wondering why Sheridan had to go there and I realized I just don’t have the stomach anymore to sit there and watch someone getting raped. After spending time with her grief-stricken parents, it feels downright awful to be made a witness to such brutality. We know depravity is out there and since we’re aware, seeing less of it would’ve been just as powerful, if not more.

 

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Sheridan is intentional-yet-slight in how he stresses compassion and understanding in examining the white man and Native American living alongside each other. It’s included as a not-so-subtle undercurrent throughout, but like “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water”, Sheridan is more concerned with offering dialogue that acknowledges the conventions of the mythic genres he’s paying homage to, than he is providing viewers with a message or statement to mull over later on.

Despite some criticism some have directed toward the handling of Emily Blunt’s character in “Sicario”, Sheridan’s work has been labeled ‘man’s man” movies. I’m not really sure what that means or if it matters, but when I think about how the two main females are written here (even Lambert’s ex-wife is woefully one-dimensional), I can’t help but feel how there are missed opportunities in “Wind River”.

Such an observation is troublesome considering I liked Sheridan’s direction here, making it kind of ironic that it’s his screenplay that I had issues with, considering his work as a writer has earned him some warranted attention. Regardless, I remain interested in Sheridan’s work as a writer or director and hope he can find value in presenting the characterization and experiences of men and women with a balance of equalization.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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