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Taylor Sheridan has spent the last couple years establishing himself as the strongest scribe working in action cinema today. His strong screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water have given Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie fantastic jumping off points to create films full of intensity, depth and humor. However, with Wind River, Sheridan isn’t interested in sharing the credit, making his directorial debut with this snow drenched murder mystery. He certainly has reliable back-up, with Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen importing their Avengers: Age Of Ultron chemistry into something that, you know, isn’t terrible.
The story follows Cory Lambert (Renner), an expert hunter/tracker living near the titular Native American reservation. He’s living the quiet life, focusing on spending time with his young son whenever he has visitation. However, all of that touchy-feely nonsense will have to wait, as the daughter of one of Cory’s friends is found murdered. The FBI sends Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to investigate but since she’s unfamiliar with the area and not used to the terrain, Cory decides to tag along to ensure that lives to track down the killer.
As established with his masterful rendition of Texas in Hell or High Water, Sheridan is an expert in setting. He makes the worlds of his stories feel so alive that you can hear them breathing through the screen. Wind River is by far his most well realized local. It’s part blood-soaked killing ground, part winter wonderland with lush cinematography by Ben Richardson capturing it all. Almost every image is deeply foreboding as if one wrong turn could leave us stranded in the forest with our characters.
None of these people are simply props to advance a mystery. They’re chock full of depth and brought to life by a fantastic cast. Jeremy Renner has spent his entire post Hurt Locker career looking for an action hero role to really lock into and none of them have quite registered. Sure, some of the movies he’s done have been successes, but not because of him. Here, he finally gets the character he’s deserved to play all along. Cory embodies everything that makes an iconic action hero. He’s reserved and charming while harboring deep emotional pain underneath. While certainly pleasant and affable, if crossed, he turns into an almost God-like force of nature destroying everything in his path. Olsen is equally strong, crafting one of the most well-realized female characters in an action movie in quite some time. Jane is established early on as being new to the FBI. In any other movie, that would be an excuse to make her fragile and in constant need of Renner’s rescue. While she certainly has vulnerable moments, the film never forgets that she is still an FBI agent. She refuses to be pushed around, planting her feet firmly in the ground against anybody in her path. The relationship between her and Renner is perfectly measured, never entering into any obligatory romantic territory that would throw off the momentum of the story.
However, even though these characters are fantastic, the lack of an indigenous main character is somewhat egregious. There are a few Native American characters here, but they’re all in supporting roles. They may be strong supporting roles but it does feel a little like whitewashing. Cory could have very easily been played by a Native American actor and if anything it would’ve made more sense. Providing an action hero for that community would’ve given this film a greater purpose beyond just being a really solid thriller which is a bit of a disappointment.
While this is a very serious story, there’s still a great deal of levity here. Sheridan is fantastic at incorporating humor into very morbid scenarios without it feeling overtly quippy. These are real people who deal with trauma by releasing it through light humor. The dynamic between Graham Greene and Renner draws out the most laughs, their constant barbs at each other reminiscent of Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in Hell or High Water.
The action sequences are expertly crafted, especially for a first-time director. Through visceral sound design, every gunshot is startling, with each moment of carnage feeling animalistic and savage. There’s an intentional lack of grace to this violence. It’s dirty and savage and often over in the blink of an eye. So much of the tension here is waiting for somebody to snap and fire off the first shot because we know that whenever that is, there will be severe consequences. Since there is so much weight to it, the most cathartic beats of brutality really hit home and satisfy. It’s the kind small scale action that we don’t really see anymore but hopefully, Sheridan will usher in a resurgence of it.
Wind River is a beautiful re-creation of the restrained and powerful thrillers of a bygone era. Perfectly balancing chilling atmosphere and explosive action, Sheridan nails down his position as the current man to beat in the genre. It may even be his strongest work to date, with characters even more robust than the ones in Hell or High Water. While Renner’s casting has a bit of a scummy undercurrent, he and Olsen do career best work in bringing Sheridan’s work to life. It’s a perfect antidote to the bloated and poorly executed action films that so often populate theaters. Bring your winter coat, strap in and enjoy.