Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, a Rape, Disturbing Images, and Language
Directed by: Taylor Sheridan
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene & Martin Sensmeier
Taylor Sheridan has been making quite the impression in the independent film scene. He made waves with his script for the bleaker-than-bleak cartel thriller SICARIO (which I’d rank as one of my favorite thrillers of the 2010s) and received praise for penning the modern-western HELL OR HIGH WATER. Sheridan finally directs one of his own scripts in mystery-thriller WIND RIVER. The premise for this movie sounds very simple, but Sheridan is prone to breaking conventions and loves to focus on complex characters. His unique style of storytelling elevates this film far beyond its seemingly clichéd set-up.
The body of a young woman has been found on the desolate, snow-covered landscape of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker who’s used to hunting and killing predators. Saddled with a deeper emotional motivation than you might initially think, Cory takes to hunting down the person responsible for this homicide. Fish-out-of-water FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) also finds herself facing unfair odds in a no man’s land where back-up is a myth and survival is key. Together, Jane and Cory must piece together the clues behind this mysterious death, but Wind River’s harsh elements and tense environment are stacked against them.
Much like his previous two screenplays, WIND RIVER is a film that works because of its attention to characters, a genuine emotional core, and tense atmosphere. Though it’s not nearly as dark as SICARIO, I’d argue that WIND RIVER is a step higher than HELL OR HIGH WATER. This thriller isn’t perfect in its pacing, because there are a few scenes that noticeably drag a little longer than they needed to. However, the end result is a riveting thriller that will frequently punch you in the gut and constantly keep your eyeballs glued to the screen.
Jeremy Renner might have put in his finest performance yet as tracker-turned-investigator Cory. The film feeds us little vague tidbits about Renner’s character’s past and shows enough respect to let the audience put those puzzle pieces together for ourselves, though we do get a scene where more revealing details come out. Still, this slight bit of exposition keeps things enough of a mystery to remain realistic. Renner’s character has a bad past and this makes him a stronger protagonist to bring his own brutal style of justice to the proceedings. I was rooting for him the whole way through and found his final on-screen moments to be especially satisfying in two totally different emotional ways.
Elizabeth Olsen is the fish-out-of-water FBI agent, who’s appropriately outraged and concerned when she realizes the many injustices that the Wind River residents have to endure in a search for justice. Olsen’s Jane starts off as a tad unlikable, but gradually grows on the viewer as she begins to understand that she’s stumbled into especially dangerous territory and is investigating a case that nobody else wants to touch. Gil Birmingham gave a strong performance in last year’s HELL OR HIGH WATER as the Sheriff’s Native sidekick, but steals scenes here as a grieving father who has tons of baggage.
WIND RIVER’s unique setting adds a lot to the proceedings as well. The harsh, frozen elements are a constant plot point in this mystery and manage to pack in unexpected social commentary about the current sad state of how Native Americans are treated. This message isn’t overly preachy or forced in any way, but instead serves as a further powerhouse to the already depressing tale. The film is well-shot and there’s a constant air of menace lurking around this deadly white location. The mystery is further heightened by small clues that lead to big revelations. One particular moment, that cuts from a flashback to present day, is especially masterful. This carefully edited sequence racks up the suspense by giving the viewer damning information that the main characters are about to discover.
The biggest reason why WIND RIVER succeeds as a thriller, a mystery, and a great film in general is because it has a living, breathing emotional core. The characters, writing, atmosphere, and feelings elevate the material far above its meager set-up. I cared about these people. I cared about their plights. I wanted to see this mystery solved. I wanted to see justice delivered in a satisfying way. I gave a shit about every single thing in this film and that’s why Taylor Sheridan is a cinematic storyteller to watch. He forces his viewers to care by connecting them to believable fleshed-out characters and seemingly simple stories that are emotionally complicated. WIND RIVER is a must-see!