“Wind River” (2017)
Running Time: 111 minutes
Written and Directed by: Taylor Sheridan
Featuring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham and Graham Greene
Cory Lambert: “I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself, I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just, It hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor come up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, “I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. You’re daughter’s gone. Now the good news, as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, You’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?” He said, “that’s what not accepting this will rob from you”. If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain, Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”
A director that is given a broad canvass to work with as well as top talent in front of as well as behind the camera can count themselves very lucky, but when the film they work on turns out as well as “Wind River” (2017) it is an auspicious occasion indeed, especially when that director is a screenwriter as well. In this case writer/director Taylor Sheridan has already had a pretty good start to his career with his first produced screenplay being the incredibly successful and criminally underrated “Sicario” (2015), directed by Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve. Sheridan then quickly followed up that triumph with the Oscar nominated screenplay for the David McKenzie directed “Hell or High Water” (2016). The success of both of these films, both making money as well as being critically lauded, meant that Sheridan had the power to direct his next screenplay. I must say this was a wise choice as this is a truly great film, it seems September has been a very good month for film releases in general.
Sheridan has been able to line up two extremely experienced leads in the always-reliable Jeremy Renner as well as the talented Elizabeth Olsen who after an auspicious debut in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (2011) has finally found a film that matches her early promise. Sheridan has written a film that is at once a character piece but is more than that, in dealing with familial loss as well as racial issues that haunt not only the US but almost every country in the world. He asks what does it mean to be a man, or a women (although to a lesser extent), where do we come from as people and the brutality that one person (or persons) can inflict on another for nothing more than the promise of a thrill or a boredom breaker? It seems that Sheridan is always querying the human condition and all that entails, something that possibly comes from his acting background as well any education he may have.
The film is et in the Winter on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert discovers the body of Natalie Hanson, an 18-year old resident of the reservation. Her corpse is frozen solid, she is without shoes and proper winter attire, and there is a blood stain on her pants at her groin. Rookie FBI special agent Jane Banner arrives to determine whether a murder has been committed, as the federal government has jurisdiction over capital crimes on reservations.
This film rests squarely on Jeremy Renner’s shoulders as the lead, as well the emotional tether that really binds all the characters in this film together. He does a wonderful job as being the ‘know everything’ character that really leads his co-star around the general area they are operating in. Renner has been nominated for best actor twice at the Oscars, it is roles like this where you see his strengths as an actor (in particular a film actor) who can really get under the skin of whomever he portrays. Even in his MCU movies as the archer Hawkeye he brings something deeper to the character, as well as the movie, than he needs to. Over the past fifteen years since his lead role in “Dahmer” (2002) Renner has been an actor to watch, it is no fluke that he gives his all to his work, which you can plainly see onscreen. It is a little unfortunate then that the character played by Elizabeth Olsen really is nothing more than a fill in for the audience. She is playing a fish out of water right up to the end of the movie, which is a shame because she is a diminished character, as well as this being a tired trope in a film that is original. In saying that I understand why Sheridan has created this role, it is a way to answer any questions or situations that may crop up for the audience. The highlights of the rest of the cast are two Native American actors Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham who have long been around in a variety of films so have experience to burn in films of this ilk. They both offer very different aspects of tribal life as well as the reflection of how Native Americans are seen by not only non-Native Americans but by the government where they are still being persecuted in more insidious ways than ever. Both actors represent where their people have finally ended up with nothing more than isolation and silence – something that can’t be taken away from them, until the actions taken by some non-Native American visitors to their small isolated and insular world.
Sheridan definitely writes from a male perspective which of course is his prerogative, women in his movies are all either out of time or out of touch or both. Even taking that into account this is still a beautiful movie that, like many other movies today uses the geographic location of its setting as a definite character – more often than not the main character has many of the same elements as the area they live in, this is more obvious as you work through each of his movies. In fact it is this very hostile environment that is responsible for (indirectly) all of the death that has taken place, believe me there is a lot of it. The way in which the loss by all the main players in this film has been framed is done so well. Not only are all the people isolated by their own emotions, but they are landlocked by the continent itself, then the weather plays a major part with all the inherent dangers that it represents (literally) – which we see twice in the movie. Sheridan has made the main character the only person with any real agency, he has taken responsibility for many things in his life, we see him throughout the movie making his own mark, with his own actions – we see him tracking animals, offering advice, making his own bullets, not afraid about owning up to loss and advising a father on what happens if grief is not embraced in a conscious way. This is different to all the other characters as they seem to stumble around lost in the physical or emotional world.
As I have already said this is a film about loss as well as the consequence of loss, what it means to lose a part of life that will never come back. This loss is physical, the loss of life, but is also the loss of identity whether that be as a father, or, in the wider context, the loss of Nationhood, what that does to a people and how this can lead down self destructive paths. We see small elements of personal self-destruction as well as, in many instances self-sabotage. One of those losses is what becomes the inciting incident, where choices are made along sexual, political and racial lines, people go too far in their decisions and its too late to go back on them – something the US could take a page from in its dealings with its own people as well as on the international stage.
If you enjoyed Sheridan’s other films you will love this. It is a murder mystery with layers that go deep; they help to illustrate the effects of loss, a society on the edge of disappearing as well as what can happen when people actually care for others. There are many elements to a Taylor Sheridan movie, these are all present here, the older wider man, someone who is clueless to what is really going in and of course a crime. I recommend this film highly and I would not be surprised to see Sheridan shortlisted for a screenplay Oscar in a few months.