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Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River has a similar premise to Sicario, his 2015 screenwriting debut. Both films are about a female FBI agent who enters a world of ruthless violence for which she is not prepared. But while Sicario introduced a promising new talent, Wind River inadvertently dismantles the reputation Sheridan cultivated for himself. In countless interviews, Sheridan posits himself as a tough, sensitive, ferociously apolitical screenwriter who makes smart thrillers with some social import. This film, his directorial debut, has similar aspirations, yet devolves into calculated exploitation.
Before we meet FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), Sheridan spends some time with a hunter named Cory (Jeremy Renner). Cory works in a remote, snow-caked region of Wyoming, where he wears all-white camouflage and a sniper rifle over his shoulder. He sees some human footprints and tracks them until he finds the frozen body of a young Native American woman. The body is on the Wind River Reservation, giving the FBI jurisdiction over the homicide investigation. Jane recruits Cory to help her out, and he leads her through the community’s underbelly, where desperation and boredom lead to violence and drugs. The case has extra resonance for Cory, since he knew the victim and his child died under similar circumstances.
Sheridan is less sure of himself as a director than as a writer. He cannot decide between natural, handheld camera work and the gentle glides of a dolly shot. It is common for filmmakers to mix both techniques, depending on what the scene requires, yet here they seem chosen at random. Since Wind River includes many scenes of travel, whether on a snowmobile or snow boots, Sheridan embellishes the investigation with music from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who dial down their confrontational style in favor of melodies that borrow heavily from Native American traditions. There are also repeated verses from a poem, with lines that sound borrowed from a dreamcatcher greeting card. Sicario was set primarily in Mexico and the Southwest, but at least director Denis Villeneuve had the wherewithal to create a distinct soundscape, instead of appropriating the local culture.
The details of the case are admirably simple. They are an opportunity for Sheridan to showcase his supporting actors, including Graham Greene, who previously appeared in 1992’s Thunderheart, another film about an FBI agent investigating a murder on a reservation. The real standout is Gil Birmingham, who is intensely brooding as the dead girl’s father. Birmingham shares a scene with Renner where they discuss the nature of grief, and it has more emotional clarity than most murder mysteries. That empathy continues towards the first shoot out, where desperation guides the shooters more than survival. Renner emerges as the film’s moral center, counseling multiple people, and by the third of such scenes he is more like a patriarchal grief counselor, not a fleshed-out character.
Wind River is engaging, if uninspired, at least until an ill-advised flashback sequence. We already know the chronology of the murder: The victim was raped and ran barefoot in the snow before succumbing to the elements. The flashback grimly depicts the rape, but not before adding Jon Bernthal (in a perfunctory cameo) as the victim’s soft-spoken, unfortunate boyfriend. Sheridan includes the flashback to provoke the audience—he wants us to be disturbed—and yet he does have the patience to let the scene settle.
Moments after the flashback, Sheridan pulls us into a frenzied, deadly shoot-out, where the bodies fall faster than we can think. The juxtaposition does not add resonance to the flashback. It erases the rape scene. By the time the climax ends, it is clear the flashback adds little to solving the mystery. As a cynical provocation, Sheridan upends the goodwill he developed through patience and an attention to detail.
Throughout his hunt, Cory repeatedly calls the murder victim “a fighter.” He says this because, after escaping a dangerous situation, she ran for miles through the snow. Sheridan continues his feigned concern in a closing title card, where he adds that countless Native American women disappear. The unintentional irony is how this is lip service: The victim has little agency, and the majority of her screen time she is either in her lover’s arms, or assaulted. If Sheridan respected her bravery, he would focus more on her ordeal. Instead, Sheridan aspires for the same reserves of wisdom and self-respect as his hero. This is not thriller that raises social awareness; it’s another white savior fantasy, just in the package of a grim procedural.
Wind River opens Friday at Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema.