Acclaimed screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has become synonymous with the art of tension in the dramatic thriller. His collaboration with Denis Villeneuve on 2015’s sleeper hit “Sicario” swiftly drew attention to his gritty, realist style that brings fans of the neo-noir flavor into contemporary, practical settings. The former “Sons of Anarchy” actor wrote and directed the recently-released crime thriller “Wind River,” in which Academy Award-nominee Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker,” “Arrival”) portrays a skilled tracker who discovers the murdered body of a young woman on an American Indian reservation. Elizabeth Olsen (“Age of Ultron,” “Ingrid Goes West”) co-stars as the sole FBI agent who is sent out to investigate the supposed homicide. The narrative swiftly follows the pair as they delve deeper into the trail leading back to the perpetrators in a fiery blend of classical Hollywood tonality and Sheridan’s own inflections of intensity in a gut-wrenching story.
An avid fan of the formal noir techniques myself, the first hint of professionalism to be found in “Wind River” is its consistency with Sheridan's previous features. Despite having not seen “Hell or High Water,” there is an overt parallelism to “Sicario”’s focus on the implications of characterial morality and motivation. Whereas Emily Blunt’s Agent Macy may refrain from questionable actions unless under extraordinary circumstances, Olsen’s performance assimilates into the reservation’s toughened lifestyle, acclimating to the harsh Wyoming climate. However, both Olsen and Blunt’s arcs mimic one another. While the scale of what’s at stake may vary between the two, both characters come to acknowledge the importance of “breaking the rules” in order to achieve their desired goals. In “Wind River,” this stems from arguably the most intense scene of the film: Olsen and Renner have traced the victim’s last whereabouts to an isolated oil drilling site. The armed operators there seem to flank the protagonists and police force in tow. Here, it’s uncertain what the operators’ motives are and what they are attempting to conceal. What ensues both questions the viewer’s expectations of the supposed macguffin and reveals the harsh reality of the film’s prime mystery through the lens of an uncomfortably graphic flashback. Unlike the 20th century approach to film noir, Sheridan’s protagonists do not evoke the vulnerable and dangerous femme fatale of paradigmatic conventions. Rather, they are given vulnerable and genuine traits that connect with the typical moviegoer. This might be visualized through Olsen’s trauma from when she disposed of a hostile threat, or her pronounced weakness after succumbing to injury. “Wind River” contains no Deus ex Machina, and instead forces its characters to properly earn their reward, which rests on a fine line between staying alive and solving the case.
There is an additional obligation of praise to Sheridan for a masterful grasp on the technicalities of production. The unobtrusive lighting and set design are painfully delicate, as if they are literally shooting on a whim at locales they find intriguing, as opposed to a carefully crafted film set. This attention to silent detail is only matched by the discordant and emotionally provocative score, invoking tones of dread and despair in the context of the remote western landscape. The camera moves fluidly and tacitly, motivated by distinct pacing and motivation depending on the scene. The product that results at the combination of this triad is an effective bridge between the broad, sprawling styles of the classic American Western and the haunting actuality of crime that is present even in modern society; an authentically chilling rendition of present day violence is attained. Once again, this becomes the telltale style of Sheridan’s aptitude for not only forming organically unraveling tales of allure, but executing them in a visceral and almost documentary-esque style. However, the thematic core of the film still remains.
It is revealed (SPOILER) that the murdered woman is a member of the reservation, and was in fact close friends with Renner’s daughter, who was previously killed in an unknown fashion. Large chunks of the film contain dialogue of grief and loss between the two pain-stricken families. The film ends on a lingering shot of Renner and the victim’s father (“Kimmy Schmidt”’s Gil Birmingham). A final wall of text burns into the screen, acknowledging the fact that Native American women are the only demographic for which there is no kept record in the Missing Persons Directory. Have no doubt, “Wind River” is a compelling crime drama through-and-through. However, Sheridan injects substantial themes of loss, familial strife and controversy through the depiction of the dismal Wind River Reservation. While a majority of the film focuses on the aspect of American wilderness, the reservation remains in a dismal state, wrought with drug addiction, sexual assault and poverty. These crises are indistinguishable from the true-to-life factors which leave reservations in a state that’s in much need of attention. While the film may appear hyperbolic about these representations, it serves as a call to attention on the very existence of these issues, and does so in a captivating, horrifying and empathetic manner which “Sicario” so apprehensively conveyed. A prime, tertiary installment to Sheridan’s crime drama trilogy, “Wind River” is a poetic and riveting contribution to film, bringing appraisal for both its contributions to the modern film noir and commentary on the neglected aspects of the political system.
At the time of viewing the film, it was present in a mere 2,095 theaters nationally. This is a shockingly limited release that still surprises me, as this film is well worth the time and attention of the curious viewer.