Taylor Sheridan, known for his portrayal of David Hale on television's Sons of Anarchy, is emerging as a considerable talent behind the screen. He wrote the screenplay for Sicario and last year's brilliant Hell or High Water. Sheridan has an auspicious directorial debut with the riveting Wind River. Set on an Indian reservation during a bleak Wyoming winter, the film tackles a vastly underreported subject matter; violence against Native American women. It is a dark and unforgiving mystery, told with a grim conviction and methodical delivery.
Jeremy Renner stars as Cory Lambert, a professional hunter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His job is to kill predators that target local livestock. Lambert finds the body of a young Indian woman in a remote forest on the Wind River reservation. Raped and murdered, the girl ran for her life through miles of desolate snow. The FBI dispatches a rookie agent from Las Vegas, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), to investigate the crime. Banner quickly deduces that she is out of her element. She enlists Lambert's help, unaware that the girl's death reflects a similar tragedy in his life.
Wind River is a complex story on multiple fronts. The murder does not take place in a vacuum. The reservation is mired in economic distress. Lack of opportunity has led to rampant alcoholism and drug abuse. The locals view law enforcement with skepticism and hostility. The white man has not been historically kind. Characters are given time to explore root causes of their problems. There is a substantial amount of drama taking place between them. These scenes have emotional heft. Sheridan does an excellent job of juxtaposing the crime against latent societal issues.
Wind River does not cut any corners in resolving the murder. The film is a mystery at its core. Renner and Olsen uncover clues bit by bit. True detective work is employed here. Sheridan takes the time for plot developments to play out. He builds up slowly to a staggering reveal. Much like his screenplay for Hell or High Water, Sheridan goes big at the right time. The third act is an absolute whopper. It hits the film like a shot of adrenaline.
Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen play their parts well. The seasoned hunter with emotional baggage and the rookie with gumption are fully realized. This isn't Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch playing Cowboys and Indians. The issue I have pertains to whitewashing. This is a Native American story told through the eyes of white characters. Sheridan's premise has the reservation police force incapable of solving this heinous crime. The Indian characters are lost in the snow without the guidance of their Caucasian counterparts. I take nothing away from Sheridan's good work, but it would have been refreshing to see this film from the Indian point of view. I would surmise that Native American police are just as capable at solving crimes.
From The Weinstein Company, Winder River is an engrossing crime drama. Taylor Sheridan heats up the summer box office with a bitter cold murder. His screenwriting and acting talents have served him well as a director. This is certainly a tremendous first film. I applaud his focus on Native American women, but wish his screenplay had leads from that community.