A Powerful film written and directed by the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water that is among the year’s best.

Director: Taylor Sheridan/2017

Actor turned writer Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy) has had quite a streak with his screenplays that has turned a lot of heads.  His first screenplay was for the very strong, and gripping drug trafficking film Sicario, starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin.  His second film, Hell or High Water, starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster, would earn Sheridan an Oscar nomination.  For his third effort, Wind River, Sheridan not only writes the screenplay, but is given the chance to direct his second feature film.  In many ways, Wind River ends up being a more satisfying film than his previous efforts, and that is high praise.

One thread that connects these three films, is the authentic ways in which Sheridan deals with his subject matter, and the intentional pacing that the script uses to build to natural, and gripping, climaxes that never feel formulaic or forced. He never seeks to insult the audience’s intelligence or manipulate their emotions, either.  His directing style naturally fits and compliments the story he has written, and Wind River is able to showcase both his directing and storytelling strengths to produce an engaging mystery that doesn’t stray far from the traditional model, but demonstrates a deep understanding of it.  Wind River is one of the best films of the year, thus far, and I fully expect it to be in contention when the nominations are announced.

As the third film in a trilogy of sorts (based on consistent themes, looks, and locations instead of characters), Wind River holds its head as high as its predecessors, and in someways stands above them.

Wind River is the name of a Native American reservation in Wyoming where members of the Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho tribes largely live.  Sheridan points his gaze, and his camera, on this largely forgotten population and tells a story of crime that portrays the desperation and crime that has been reported to exist among the youth of this reservation, while also giving the audience a powerful look of the nobility and grace of this strong and proud people who continue to rise above their circumstances.  Wind River also functions as a powerful social commentary on the U.S. policies towards Native Americans over the years, while demonstrating the complications that law enforcement agencies face when trying to investigate crimes on the land of the Wind River reservation.

Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, The Hurt Locker, and The Town) stars as Cory Lambert, a U.S. Parks and Wildlife agent charged with eliminating predators who pose a threat to people and their land.  A divorcee, Lambert shares a son with his ex-wife who is a native American from the Wind River reservation.  He is still close with his former in-laws and is respected by the people of the reservation.  His former father-in-law has asked him to come and take care of some mountain lions who are attacking the cattle.  Heading into the mountains by way snowmobile, he stumbles upon a frozen body of a young woman, whom he knew as the childhood friend of his late daughter.  He contacts the local reservation authority, Ben (Graham Greene-Dances with Wolves, Maverick, Die Hard with a Vengeance), to accompany him to see the body where it is determined that a call to the FBI must be made.

Enter agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen-The Avengers: Age of Ultron, In Secret), a Floridan-born woman who is stationed out of Las Vegas (the closest FBI outpost to Wind River), that is the only one to show up to answer the reservation’s call.  Sheridan infuses much humor into the story from Banner’s fish-out-of-water experiences.  Not only is she a female agent in an agency who is looked down on by the boy’s club of the profession and the closed society on the reservation that has no respect for her, but she is a southern girl who lives in a desert town showing up to a place that will require much different clothing and understanding than she came equipped with if she plans on heading into the remote areas in the snow-packed mountains to conduct her investigation.  She is escorted to the crime scene by Lambert, and then later recruits him to assist her.  She makes this request given his acceptance by the reservation and the fact that she has no backup from her agency. She realizes she will need his help when she is informed by Ben that “this isn’t the land of backup…this is the land of you’re on your own”.

Greene is very good in his role, as is the father of the victim they discover,  who is named Martin, played beautifully by Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water, Twilight).  Birmingham’s role is small, but is one of the most powerful of the film as he walks the tightrope of a man who is mourning his daughter’s death, remaining strong for his family, and maintaining the proud heritage of his race in the face of losing his kids to the constant blanket of despair that shrouds his people and their land.  His moments with Jeremy Renner are especially poignant as Renner puts on his best performance to date portraying a man dealing with his own grief, having also lost his teenage daughter, and seeking to keep it together for the sake of his son but knowing that he has lost his marriage and everything else he holds dear.  Olsen was a surprise in this role and I am happy to say that she is especially strong as Agent Banner playing both vulnerable, as a woman completely out of her element, and demonstrating a decisive strength as she quickly learns the way she must skirt the very authority and law she represents, as an FBI agent, if she is to achieve justice in a place that plays by its own rules.

The mystery of the film unfolds slowly, and methodically, before unleashing a climax that is one of the best of the year.  Sheridan utilizes a strong editing trick as he unveils the truth of the film’s mystery that Lambert and Banner have been trying to track down, and certain people have been trying to cover up. This editing serves as effective storytelling and it helps add the right amount of tension to the proceedings before all of the plot threads converge into the grand finale.

Wind River is a powerful and gripping film and should be seen by as many people as possible.  Not only will you witness a riveting crime story, but the film will also challenge you in the way that the Native Americans continue to suffer the effects of U.S. government policies.  Sheridan is able to do this naturally through the story without any kind of moralizing or manipulating of the script to expose an agenda. He has no points to make but simply by pointing the camera and telling a story with authentic portrayals of the Native American people and of his subject matter, he is able to produce a film that is quite convicting.  While the point of view of this story centers on his two main characters, who are white, the rest of the film champions the Native American peoples of the Wind River reservation, and collectively it is the Native American characters who are given the most complete narrative arcs of the film, and who serve as its true heroes.

Taylor Sheridan’s stories have always featured the marginalized peoples in society.  In Sicario it was the victims of the drug cartels and U.S. government policies enacted for dealing with the drug lords, who are caught in the middle.  In Hell or High Water, it is the working poor who are victims of the greed of the banking industry and of the latest economic downturns.  As the third film in a trilogy of sorts (based on consistent themes, looks, and locations instead of characters), Wind River holds its head as high as its predecessors, and in someways stands above them.