Geographically winter mornings are more pleasant than summer ones. The skies are empty and a lovely shade of blue. It’s quiet, it’s crisp and it’s calm. There is a stiff breeze in your face though – a stiff breeze that is beginning to hurt your nose. Your fingers are slowly losing their feeling and shoving them in your pockets is only a small rest bite. The chance to wear a combination of your favourite jumpers has arisen, but the coat on top is uncomfortable. Getting inside is a dream, and removing all the layers a chore. Yet the beauty of the morning has not changed, and will never change. Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River is a winter morning; a gorgeous, solemn and extremely cold morning. It’s a morning to revisit and cherish – with only the slight sense of a looming sadness beneath.
Jeremy Renner is Cory Lambert – an experienced tracker whose job is to mostly hunt down and kill predators that are terrorizing livestock on a snowy Indian reservation in Wyoming. Whilst hunting down a group of mountain lions he comes across the body of a teenage girl who has been raped and killed. Then FBI agent Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen arrives. She is clearly canny, but ill-equipped so asks Lambert to help her find the killer.
This film opens with our protagonist Lambert shooting and killing a wolf that is surrounding a herd of sheep. A sign of things to come this symbolises the films relentless and unforgiving nature. Renner is playing a grizzled peak of masculinity here. He’s patient, but tough and has more baggage than a central cities airport. At first he appears as the distant divorced dad, sharing custody of a young child. It soon becomes clear that he is woven into this strange community, and relied on – the community and setting itself being the real main character of the story. It’s a place of sheer survival – the harsh weather and snow storms testing everyone that resides there. The reservation is described as ‘the only thing we have left’. It offers little excitement or prosperity for the young people of the area, a theme that is a driving force of the movie. For some it’s all about getting out of there, for others – like Lambert – it’s about becoming one with the environment. It’s this connection he has with the setting that makes him such an interesting character and the master in every scene he’s in. Renner plays him well in a simple performance where emotion only breaks through when it has too. He has to be strong when others are weak, making his rare weaker moments all the more heart wrenching.
Alongside him is Olsen; in a real coming of age performance. Thankfully Sheridan didn’t write her as a hapless FBI detective out of her depth. She is from the very start in control of the investigation and not unwilling to receive help from the experts of the area. Her bravery shines through and Olsen does well in portraying someone terrified but pushing herself to do the right thing. The situation is draining on her and you can see it in her eyes, though not once does she let anyone take advantage of that. At one point she makes reference to the police chief that she’s all that they’ve got. This is when one of the joys of the film comes along: her interplay with Lambert – the sharing of the knowledge of the wilderness, and the sadness in his past. A sadness that is dripped through the film, never becoming cliché or tired. It is a marvel of the film – the ability to convey emotions that we have seen a hundred times before, but still make it moving and interesting.
Sheridan has obviously learned a great deal from the last two directors he has worked with. He’s off the back of writing two of the best American thrillers of the last few years – Sicario and Hell or High Water. From Sicario director Denis Villeneuve (possibly the most on form director on the planet right now) he has learnt about tension and framing. Wind River is full of suspense and atmosphere, a sense of constant dread that is building and building. It means that each scene is exciting to watch, and there is a never a moment of boredom or anxiety. From Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie he has learnt about the quieter moments, about keeping them simple and sharp. The moments of pause are a chance to examine the characters carefully, not to force it or drag it out. We come out of Wind River with enough revelations about the characters that we can be satisfied. Thanks to working with these two great directors Sheridan appears like a seasoned pro, despite this being his first real feature debut. Everything is executed perfectly, and framed with clarity. The scenes are open and inclusive, with the wide’s giving Sheridan a lot to play with. All the foreboding comes from this stunning camerawork but also a haunting soundtrack. It chimes slowly, and is ever present throughout most of the film. There are possible times when it could have been distracting, but the grace of the film-making made it bond well with the content of the film. It gives the film a chilling edge, which kept me completely riveted.
I can safely say that Taylor Sheridan is now the king of the simple, but always brooding drama. He is telling this tale with confidence and conviction. The subject matter is based on true events, and it’s tough. Some of the scenes are not easy to watch, but Sheridan handles them well – with little remorse. The film is equally beautiful as it is plain and a lot of the films greatness comes from that simplicity. There is enough of a film-making edge to keep it fresh (a bit of chorological hopping) and I’m eager to see what I make of it a second time around. The best way to go into this film (like many films) is too know as little as possible. There is a scene towards the end of the film that surprised and charmed me, that I think works perfectly to tie all the film together. Overall it is a perfectly crafted work of art after one viewing. The cast are solid, the pace is always up, and the story is told creatively. I am hoping this is the start of a run of brilliance for Taylor Sheridan as a director.