Taylor Sheridan is one of my favorite screenwriters working today. He wrote SICARIO, my favorite film of 2015, and he followed that up with HELL OR HIGH WATER, one of the best films of 2016.
Now comes WIND RIVER (2017), which is every bit as good as his previous two films, and this time Sheridan directs as well.
WIND RIVER (2017) takes place in Wind River, Wyoming, a beautiful expanse of land that looks like a winter paradise with its snow-covered mountains and icy rivers. But looks can be deceiving.
Hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the dead body of a young woman in the snow, miles from anyone’s home or farm. Cory recognizes the young woman as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), who used to be best friends with his own daughter, herself deceased.
FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives on the scene and quickly determines that the girl’s death is a homicide. As she begins her investigation, she asks Cory for help, not only with transporting her through the snowy terrain via his snowmobile, but also with tracking down the girl’s killer, a request he agrees to without hesitation.
They then spend the rest of the movie trying to find out who killed Natalie and why.
WIND RIVER is much more than just a straightforward thriller. For starters, it takes place on a Native American reservation. As he did with the plight of economy starved Texans in HELL OR HIGH WATER, writer Taylor Sheridan takes us inside the minds and hearts of the Native Americans on the reservation. They are a depressed lot, feeling they have little to live for, surrounded by snow and silence.
But as Cory tells Natalie’s brother Chip (Martin Sensmeier), whose life has been pretty much one problem after another, he’s had opportunities, from jobs to the military, and instead he chose his current situation: he chose drugs over these other things. Cory tries to tell Chip that it’s never too late to turn things around, especially in light of what happened to his sister.
Cory is good friends with Natalie’s and Chip’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham), and they unfortunately share a bond, in that both their daughters have died. Martin makes it clear that he wants Cory to track down and kill whoever murdered his daughter. The two actors Renner and Birmingham share some of the better scenes in the movie.
Cory himself is haunted by his own daughter’s death. She, too, was murdered, her body also found in the wilderness. Cory tells Jane that if she ever has kids, she can never blink. Never. Because no matter how carefully you plan, it’s not enough. It’s a solemn warning, one that resonates with parents.
The film also points out that statistics are not kept on the disappearances of Native American women, and no one really knows how many Native American women have gone missing over the years.
Jeremy Renner is excellent as Cory Lambert. He has some truly emotional scenes, both when talking about the loss of his own daughter, and also when he reaches out to his friend Martin over the loss of Martin’s daughter. Renner is also very believable as a hunter and a tracker. It’s a rock solid performance.
Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen is just as good as FBI agent Jane Banner. She’s sent to Wind River alone, as she just happened to be the closest FBI agent in the area when the call came in about the discovery of the body, and she quickly realizes she’s in over her head, but she retains her professionalism and does the best job she can do, which is actually pretty darn good, considering the circumstances. I like Olsen a lot, and this is one of her better roles.
While she and Renner have both starred in the Marvel superhero films, Renner as Hawkeye and Olsen as Scarlett Witch, they both do much better work here and share strong onscreen chemistry together, which says something for characters who aren’t involved in a sexual or romantic relationship. I also enjoyed Olsen’s performance here better than her roles in GODZILLA (2014), OLD BOY (2013), and the horror film SILENT HOUSE (2011). She was good in all these films, but she’s better here.
Veteran actor Graham Greene is on hand as police chief Ben, and like Renner and Olsen, he’s solid throughout. In fact, he may have been my favorite character in this one, and he certainly gets most of the better lines in the movie. At one point Jane asks him if they should call for back-up, and he tells her “this isn’t the land of back-up, but the land of you’re on your own.” Ben’s a likable character, and he patiently is there every step of the way during the investigation. with Cory and Jane.
Gil Birmingham, who was excellent in a supporting role in HELL OR HIGH WATER, where he played Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger partner, is superb once again here in another supporting role as Natalie’s grieving father Martin. The scene where Cory talks to Martin about how to deal with the loss of his daughter is one of the best scenes in the movie.
And Kelsey Asbille does a fine job in a key flashback as Natalie. Likewise, Martin Sensmeier is very good as Natalie’s troubled brother Chip.
The acting is superb all around. Jon Bernthal also shows up for a key sequence, and he doesn’t disappoint.
With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan demonstrates once again the he is a superior screenwriter. He writes more than just straightforward thrillers. There are layers to his stories and themes that serve not only to educate but also to substantiate the characters’ actions and motivations.
In WIND RIVER, Cory is only too happy to assist Jane because of the unfinished business over the murder of his own daughter. He’s still haunted by the fact that he wasn’t able to protect his daughter nor was he able to find out who killed her. These layers establish emotions, and these emotions drive the story forward and give it much more impact.
Sheridan also writes phenomenal dialogue, period. His characters come to life, and they’re believable, as are the situations they find themselves in. There’s a great scene where Jane and Ben are at the coroner’s office, and the coroner informs them that he can’t list murder as the cause of death for Natalie because she died from the cold temperatures. At first, Jane thinks the coroner is stonewalling her, but he tells her point-blank that it’s clear she’s been raped and murdered, but officially he can’t list her death as a homicide if that’s not how she died, to which Jane responds that unless he lists it as a homicide, her superiors are going to tell her to go home. And then Ben basically pulls her aside and tells her that the coroner is a good man who’s just doing his job, and she should cut him some slack. It’s a refreshingly honest scene.
Sheridan also directed WIND RIVER, and he proves to be every bit as talented behind the camera as he is writing screenplays. The photography is beautiful and captures the grandeur of the snowy mountains of Wyoming. And WIND RIVER is a chilling thriller as well.
There is a sequence near the end that is every bit as suspenseful and nerve-racking as some of the nail-biting sequences in SICARIO. WIND RIVER does not disappoint on any level.
And while this isn’t Sheridan’s directorial debut— he directed the horror movie VILE (2011)— it’s still an impressive piece of work, combined with the fact that he wrote the screenplay. Sheridan is also an actor, and in fact the first time I saw Sheridan was on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY where he played Deputy Hale.
WIND RIVER is Taylor Sheridan’s third straight superior screenplay, and it’s a thriller you certainly do not want to miss.
I can’t wait to see what he writes next.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.