A young FBI agent (Elisabeth Olsen) teams with a veteran game tracker (Jeremy Renner) to investigate a murder that occurred on a Native American reservation.
Taylor Sheridan blasted onto the scene in 2015 with Sicario, a crime thriller that was more closer in tone to a psychological horror than anything else. In 2016, he followed it up with Hell Or High Water - probably one of the best neo-Westerns ever made - and ensured that Sicario wasn't just a fluke. With Wind River, Sheridan is now behind the camera and directing his own script, so the question now is whether or not he can translate his own text as effectively as others have done for him so far.
What's clear from the outset of the film is that there's none of the style or flair that Sicario or Hell Or High Water had, and in a way, it works better for the story. The landscape may be beautiful in the sun, but that's a rare occurrence and instead we're treated to bitter, cold snow and endless sheets of white. As Jeremy Renner's character repeatedly points out to Elisabeth Olsen, it's not about living - it's about survival. Sheridan's simplistic, unfettered way of framing a shot and allowing the actors to move around the set allows for a more natural performance from all of them. Renner gives one of his best performances to date and works hard to channel Eastwood-esque poise and stillness for the role. While it doesn't always work for every scene, it's still far better than any of his work for the likes of Marvel. Elisabeth Olsen, likewise, displays the range and depth that marked her out as a talent from films such as Martha Marcy May Marlene. Sheridan knows how to utilise Renner and Olsen's talents, and pairs them with authentic character actors like Gil Bermingham and Graham Greene to give a sense of balance and grounding.
The story itself is sparse enough, especially when you compare it to Sheridan's previous work. However, what made Sicario and Hell Or High Water was how the subtext and the themes were brought to the surface. With Sicario, it was about the militarisation of police and the reach of American imperialism. In Hell Or High Water, it was about the insidious, ultimately crushing nature of poverty at work in America. Here, in Wind River, there's a theme at work, and in the hands of an experienced director, it might have been shaped more clearly and with better results. Instead, Sheridan is focused on working his way through the story and arrives at its message at the very end with a post script to hammer home just how bleak things really are. The film works like a procedural thriller, with Renner acting like a cowboy Sherlock Holmes for Olsen's capable but out-of-her-depth FBI agent, and Sheridan pushes the story along to its truly bleak, deeply disturbing third act. Without giving too much away, the film makes a turn into brutal, all-too-human violence that is harrowing in its execution and unsettling in its callousness.
The cinematography, as mentioned, is direct and unfettered - but it gives it a real sense of place. The endless vistas of snow and mountain makes you feel the ice and cold just seep out of the screen, and serves as an engine for certain plot moves in the story that sometimes drags its heel, particularly in the middle section. While it may be the lesser of Sheridan's previous works and certainly more straightforward in its delivery, it's still far better than anything Renner or Olsen have done in years that didn't involve a major studio blockbuster and serves as a reminder that adult, well-crafted stories still have a place in cinemas.