Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner
Setting is an important aspect of any film but it is not often so integral to the characters and plot as it is in Wind River, Taylor Sheridan’s bleak mystery set on the eponymous Indian reservation. From its outset, this film establishes its geography – the snowy Wyoming wilderness – as a force to be reckoned with, following a lone female figure as she runs and, finally, collapses in the snow.
The death of this girl (later identified as ‘Natalie’, a local played by Kelsey Asbille) serves as the focal point for the narrative, bringing together FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) and Fish and Wildlife Service tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) to uncover the events of her suspected murder, but the overall scope is much wider, covering themes of loss, cultural conflict, and social mobility, to name but a few.
Wind River is described by Sheridan as the third and final installment in his ‘frontier trilogy’, along with his former original screenplays, Sicario and Hell or High Water, which have garnered acclaim in their own right. However, as the actor/writer’s directorial debut, Wind River allows the viewer a glimpse into Sheridan’s deeply personal, unadulterated vision.
Shouldn’t we wait for back up?
Whilst maintaining some tropes of the traditional Western – plenty of screen-time is devoted to tense standoffs and quests for vengeance – Sheridan’s respect for the landscape and its people (with whom he has spent a great deal of time) shines through. The film’s characters and their inner lives are both complex and relatable, far beyond those of archetypal ‘Cowboys and Indians’.
It is these characters, in fact, that make for such compelling viewing. Set against a backdrop of spectacular, sprawling scenery captured in Ben Richardson’s slow-paced cinematography, the inhabitants of the Wind River Indian reservation are respectfully written and rich in detail. Sam Littlefeather (the reservations local drug dealer played by Tokala Clifford) and Pete, a crew member at the local oil rig (a fearsome James Jordan) are particularly effective characters due to their menace and unpredictability, acting as catalysts for some of the film’s most brutal and disturbing scenes.
Banner and Lambert, too, make for intriguing protagonists; Lambert’s grief brought to the surface by Natalie’s death is truly devastating and Banner’s development as she is introduced to the marginalized natives (a subtle yet effective slice of social commentary) is masterfully paced.
Luck don’t live out here.
Whether they are grieving families or drug-addicted outcasts, however, the residents of Wind River all have one thing in common: the geography of the place is fundamental to their existence. This is evident in Lambert’s dependence on the wilderness for work as he hunts his prey and the solace Natalie’s father finds in meditating on the landscape, but also in the broader philosophical questions raised by the film: how much does our environment affect how we act, and is it possible to overcome that influence?
Overall, Wind River is a fascinating meditation on relationships – relationships between humans, cultures, and the sublime force of Nature (with a capital ‘N’). A combination of awe-inspiring scenery, well-crafted characters, and a haunting soundtrack from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the film artfully blended moments of action and introspection. The result: an understated epic worthy of its praise.