Taylor Sheridan has really carved out a space for himself in the past few years, with his writing credits and now directorial debut in Wind River. Starting with Sicario the brilliantly bleak and nihilistic tale of drug cartels and boarder force facing off against one another, his talent for writing modern American politically tinged adult drama became self-evident. The dive into true western stylings yet again payed off in Hell or High Water with great performances and its examination of the modern American South. Now we have his first effort at the helm of his own written work and he yet again delivers, although maybe slightly less convincingly than before.
In Wind River he brings his modern American western noir to the snow covered hills of Wyoming. Based around the gruffly brooding hunter Cory Lambert played with conviction by Jeremy Renner, a man estranged from his wife after the mysterious death of his daughter. One day he is working on his ex-Father in laws Native American Reservation when he discovers the body of a native girl who has been sexually assaulted, it is then up to him and an FBI officer fresh in from Vegas played by Elizabeth Olson to find out who is the culprit and to bring justice to this solitary area once again.
What this film does well is create the atmosphere of a barren and forgotten part of America. Whilst Native American’s are so often associated with the desert plains of Texas and Nevada, snowy Wyoming is where some must reside having been pushed off their natural land. We are deep in no man’s land where everywhere is hard to get to and conditions are deadly for anyone not wearing about 4 layers of clothing. Every shot involving the landscape is drenched in stark white with snow covering every surface, layer this on top of the bleak lives of some of Sheridan’s characters and we have what is quite a harrowing tale of a slice of modern America which has never been seen on screen before.
In Renner we have a main character who is quiet and secretive who rarely raises his voice above a low murmur, he plays the character with a real sense of realism. We can see that this man has gone to hell and back and his working on this case is only making him more determined to avenge his child. The Native American population are also deeply troubled, none of them seem especially surprised at the crime, the young men are off taking meth or in prison and women are often treated badly by the Caucasian population of the area. Sheridan evokes all of this really well and gives the film a definite pathos through his use of the atmosphere of the setting and the descriptions and representation of the Native American community.
This is not to say that I thought it was without problems, there is a definite sense that this was directed by a screenplay writer. What I mean by this is that there are multiple different scenes in which people will stop and start describing their emotions in long poetic speeches which does happen a few too many times for me to be completely invested in some characters. These speeches are very nicely written but you can’t help but imagine that if these were in the scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water that both of their Directors probably have trimmed one or two of them down a bit for sake of pacing. I also felt that Elizabeth Olson’s character was slightly underdeveloped for some of the involvement in the story she had. There are moments where she is at one moment a newcomer to the town and then suddenly is totally invested in everyone on the reservation and involved in the case. Whilst both these issues did tar the film slightly for me there was still enough intrigue and atmosphere in the story for these to not really ruin much of the film. Ultimately the film is successful in delivering a Top of the Lake/The Killing style feature film based in an original and grief drenched story of a community little addressed in films.