Taylor Sheridan, the screenwriter behind Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), has been on a hot streak as an author of smart, well-observed crime films. His two most recent efforts created worlds of moral ambiguity, living in that place where compromise and corruption meet, designed so his characters teeter on that boundary line as the narrative unfolds. With Wind River, Sheridan makes his debut as a director. Even though it never reaches the cinematic heights of his previous work, it’s a solid crime film and will leave the audience satisfied until something better comes along.
Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a tracker who works for a government fish and game agency by keeping predators away from protected lands. Elizabeth Olsen is Jane Banner, an FBI agent who happens to be at a conference nearby when the body of a young Native American woman is discovered on the local reservation. It’s Banner’s job to determine cause of death, and if it’s a murder, call in the appropriate federal support. But what kind of crime film would it be if our heroic investigators did their jobs and then left well enough alone? Since the days of Eddie Murphy’s lieutenant cussing him out in Beverly Hills Cop, government red tape never prevails in crime films, so Lambert and Banner set out to find the murderer on their own.
Where Sicario and Hell or High Water were master classes in subtlety, Wind River suffers from a bad case of being too “on the nose”. Renner’s character tracks wolves and lions, so since he “hunts predators” for a living, he’s a natural fit to be a fly-by-night homicide investigator? (Huh. Guess all those academies and training programs are for big-city wimps.) When Renner comforts his friend over the loss of his murdered daughter, Renner’s character has an incident in his past that is so on-point I thought the film was going to become a serial killer thriller with Renner’s loved one being revealed as one of the victims (it’s not). Even the investigation itself is as by-the-numbers as a crime film can be. Let’s talk to the brother of the victim. Let’s talk to the boyfriend of the victim. Mystery solved.
It’s hard to comprehend how the film’s problems flow from the script when Taylor Sheridan has shown he’s a brilliant screenwriter. However, the irony of Wind River is these clumsy plot mechanics don’t damage the film as much as you might expect. Quite to the contrary. With its rural noir vibe and Pacific Northwest setting, the look and feel of the film make up for many of its plot deficiencies and turn Wind River into a compelling crime film. Sheridan can stage a tense stand-off with the best of them, and the climax of the film is nothing short of riveting.
Renner gives his best performance since The Hurt Locker as the damaged tracker turned amateur investigator. His stony-faced veneer could have rendered his character just another Dirty Harry-style macho cipher. But, Renner allows that tough facade to crack at just the right times, hinting at the emotional turmoil bubbling under the surface. Elizabeth Olsen is perfectly cast as the fish-out-of-water agent in charge. Her face is full of youthful determination, but the audience sees the self-doubt bleeding through. She’s in over her head, and she knows it. On first impression, you’re not inclined to buy her in the role which ironically acts to make this particular character more believable.
Gil Birmingham, whom everyone remembers as Jeff Bridges’ Native American partner in Hell or High Water, turns in another solid supporting performance. In a world filled with white-washing allegations, one wonders why the talented Birmingham isn’t playing Renner’s lead role. It’s one thing to have two white outsiders come to a reservation to investigate a crime. It’s another for the “insider” and the outsider to be two white characters. The sad truth is even indie films with smaller budgets need a couple of known leads to get greenlit. But, I can’t help wondering if that kind of bold casting choice might have made Wind River a truly great crime film.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.