Stop what you’re doing and go see ‘Wind River’

Images courtesy The Weinstein Company.

9/10 Wind River is an intense, smoldering thriller that manages to be as harsh as the endless Wyoming winter and delightfully easy to watch all at the same time.

On the Wind River Indian Reservation where bodies freeze solid and evidence can be eaten by wolves or buried in snow overnight, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) beaten, raped and left to die in the cold. He alerts local police chief Ben (Graham Greene), who calls in woefully unprepared FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). They search for Hanson’s attacker, with Banner enlisting Lambert for his tracking abilities and knowledge of the area. For Lambert, who lost his teenage daughter under similar circumstances three years prior, the case is personal.

Wind River is one of the year’s best films and definitely its most interesting when it comes to genre. Its perfect blend of neo-noir, western and revenge fantasy elements make it feel intimately familiar, but just too far out of reach to pin down. The razor-sharp script make its 111 minute runtime feel like half that. The mounting drama is punctuated by a rape scene that’s revolting and at the same time quite tasteful, immediately followed by a spectacular final shootout.

Despite a quiet advertising campaign, Wind River carries an outstanding pedigree into theaters, screening at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, and has turned into a coming out party for third-time writer and first-time director Taylor Sheridan. He’s said that it’s the third part of a spiritual trilogy of post-westerns about the modern American frontier, following up 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water, directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively. Both films garnered several nominations for Sheridan’s screenplays.

Wind River is a powder keg of racial and gender tension, and it never goes off. The western fell out of favor in American cinema as stereotyping American Indians became less and less acceptable, and Lambert’s costume and characterization skewing distinctly toward the traditional cowboy evokes that history. The American Indians in the film repeatedly lament the land and opportunities that have been left to them.

As a director, he’s clearly taken pages from Villeneuve’s Sicario playbook. An array of helicopter shots celebrate the wintery landscape, and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ mournful score make the whole film brood. Wind River is a mostly atmospheric piece, and it’s an atmosphere so powerful you can almost feel the frostbite take hold.

Three films in, Sheridan’s work displays several patterns that tell us a lot about their success. All three are set in modern times in a still-untamed wilderness, using very simple stories to highlight the violence that fills the vacuum of economic development. Sicario is set mostly around Arizona’s southern border and concerns the shortcomings of America’s drug policy. Hell or High Water is set in Texas’ rural expanse and features two brothers driven to crime by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Wind River is set on the nation’s most violent Indian reservation, and barely scratches the surface of what really goes on there.

The stories’ simplicity allows the scripts to focus much more on character over plot. Sheridan spent 15 years acting and prides himself on putting actors in a position to succeed, and rightly so. Across three directors, his movies have accounted for career performances from already celebrated actors like Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and now Renner. Some scenes are clearly choreographed around playing up his performance.

Technically marvelous and intriguing, Wind River is already positioned to feature heavily in year-end awards discussions. Keep an eye on local showtimes as it continues to expand.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and a syndicated columnist with the Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions and suggestions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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