I wish I hadn’t watched Wind River on a Saturday morning. It’s an evening movie; when it’s over, you can lock your doors and hopefully not have nightmares.
That’s the unsettling effect Taylor Sheridan’s latest had on me, as I worked through some of the most buzzed-about movies of 2017.
Sheridan’s screenwriting has already given us the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, and the Denis Villeneuve-directed Sicario, which starred Emily Blunt as an idealistic FBI agent helplessly mixed up with shady alphas Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro in the war on drugs.
In Wind River – Sheridan’s first time as writer and director – Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner is another FBI agent out of her depth, this time not in Sheridan’s native Texas but in the wintry wild west of Wyoming.
Jurisdictional matters have dragged Banner in to investigate the death of a teenage Native American girl, who was found frozen and barefoot in the snowy tundra by Jeremy Renner’s quiet wildlife officer, Cory Lambert, for whom the case has disturbing echoes of his own grief.
Technically, Olsen is in charge of the investigation, but with his deep connections to the land and to the dead girl’s marginalized community, the story belongs to Renner’s softly-spoken cowboy as he supports the outsider FBI and the tribal police.
Olsen is not completely robbed of agency like Sicario’s Kate Macer, yet she has no backstory, and we never learn what makes her so driven.
She looks like she should be reading the news in a warm studio somewhere, as she is woefully underprepared for the conditions and isolation (‘Shouldn’t we just maybe wait for some backup?’ she bats her lashes. ‘This isn’t the land of backup, Jane … this is the land of “you’re on your own.”‘)
Where Macer was caught at the border by political forces beyond her control, Banner plants face-first into a community blighted by poverty, addiction and hopelessness. I wasn’t sure if she was merely incompetent and inexperienced, or if she was truly meant as a symbol for governmental disinterest and mishandling.
The violence, when it comes, is more personal and depressingly universal, but no less brutal and shocking.
Despite shaky camera triggering my vertigo, I thought Wind River was another well-made action thriller, just not as ambitious or exciting as Sicario, with its tension and moral conflict between the leads.
Sheridan stands out for his dialogue, and he delivers on a similar level to previous directors of his scripts, especially in the realistic-yet-stylish bursts of violence, and the creepy sense of dread that outlasts the film.