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Review by Simon Ramshaw
Few writers have had such a buzz surrounding them in recent years like Taylor Sheridan. The 49 year-old actor-turned-writer first came onto the scene with a supporting role on TV’s Sons of Anarchy, but it was his star-making screenplay for Denis Villeneuve’s cartel thriller Sicario that propelled him into the Hollywood A-list. Hot off Sicario’s success, he garnered an Oscar-nomination for scripting David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, pretty much giving him the ticket to do whatever he wanted. So, Sheridan chose to close his ‘American Frontier’ trilogy with his directorial debut, Wind River. Moving upwards through the northern hemisphere (Sicario tackled the weighty issue of the US secret service colonising the Mexican drug cartels, while Hell or High Water took an empathetic look at the dying embers of the Wild West), Sheridan finally arrives at Wind River, a Wyoming-set murder-mystery so steely and gritty that a young Clint Eastwood wouldn’t look out of place in the leading role. However, Sheridan’s first time directing one of his own scripts proves to also be his first rough patch as a writer, attempting to deal with an issue the film seems ill-equipped to properly engage with.
The action kicks off when white hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner, confirming his presence as a solid lead) finds the body of a young girl in the snowy wastes of the eponymous Native American reservation. It’s not long before the case is handed over to fish-out-of-water FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, emotively working her way through a script that can’t catch up with her), and the two form a tight bond to traverse the harsh landscape and catch a killer who seems a world away.
However, the film’s major stumbling point comes when Banner seems entirely useless in comparison to Lambert’s apparently-omnipotent understanding of the landscape and its people. Banner isn’t a figure like Sicario’s Kate Macer, who is forcibly relegated from making any decisions at all in the film’s third act because of the corrupt system she just can’t beat. Instead, Banner flounders from scene to scene, seemingly unaware of standard law enforcement procedure and frequently relying on Lambert’s over-eager guidance. This incompetence frustrates when it shouldn’t, and gives the film a very stop-start pace that derails the mystery once we reach the third act. Sheridan’s scripts have never dipped their toes into randomness and ridiculousness, but the final stretch of Wind River descends into utter chaos, betraying any sense of order that dictated it beforehand.
Thankfully, the film isn’t totally lost, since Sheridan has such a solid cast to bolster his film along the way. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are reliable as always, but it’s the Native American cast (making up a large, progressive portion of the on-screen performers) that impress the most. Graham Greene provides some much-needed drollness to the proceedings, but the real outstanding work comes from Gil Birmingham, who shows a completely new side after his chalk-and-cheese double-act with Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water. Wracked with grief and torment, he is the heart of the film with only two scenes to make his mark, but make his mark he does. It’s rare to see a cameo make such an emotional impression, but Birmingham’s work here is superlative.
Wind River also marks the first time that a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis has fallen completely flat. Hell or High Water’s score suffered minorly from the same artists heavily hinting how you should feel, but at least Cave’s (undeniably syrupy) vocals didn’t distract from the action. Here, however, Cave whispers in your ear at odd intervals, and the result feels more silly than poetic.
Ultimately, Wind River is such a disappointment because of its component pieces failing to gel and complement each other. Every artist involved is capable of excellent things, but Wind River is unfortunately not the film that proves it. Its message is a sad one, but not one that lingers and provokes thought like his other work, mainly because of multiple stumbles in Sheridan’s storytelling. Let’s hope that next time he works with a director that is able to bring out the best in his writing like Villeneuve or Mackenzie, because from this effort, it seems like he desperately needs it.