By Jack Dignan
Out in the far reaches of the snow, civilization feels like a lifetime away. You’re stuck in a vast, empty nothingness, free to run in any direction you choose, but, ultimately, every path you take leads nowhere. It’s a terrifying position to be in. Wind River opens exactly like that. Young Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille) runs barefoot through the snow, clearly frightened of something. Moments later, she collapses. Dead. It’s the catalyst for what’s to come, and an opening that’s chilling in nature and disturbing in execution. The opening scene sets the groundwork for the type of movie Wind River is; a thrilling, often disturbing crime movie I instantly knew I was going to love.
If Sicario and Hell or High Water proved anything, it’s that Taylor Sheridan is not to be messed with. His films depict a crimpled America, full of tragedy and terror as everyday citizens attempt to survive the harsh situations of their reality. This ideology carries over to our new, equally broken protagonist, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). He’s a divorced hunter, holding a history of sadness on his shoulders everywhere he walks. Work consumes his life, but it’s time he takes a weekend off to spend with his son. Sadly for both of them, work arrives in the most unexpected of places. While patrolling through the harsh swamp of snow that’s befallen a Native American reservation, Cory uncovers the dead body of Natalie Hanson.
The world is a relentless place. Innocents are rarely given mercy, but are instead preyed upon. It’s a situation repeated all throughout the local reserve, and one Cory understands. The case presented is one he wishes to avoid. He wants to hand it over to up and coming FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) and be done with it. But it’s a case he can’t avoid. His skills prove useful, and he’s drawn in with Banner to help solve a case that hits far too close to home for his liking. This isn’t “one last job and I’m done.” It’s “one job too many,” but once you’ve stepped foot into this world, it refuses to let you go, and the same goes for the experience of watching a movie like this one.
Through endless snowstorms and constant blizzards, the world does everything it can to make situations difficult for Jane and Cory. Wind River marks the first time Taylor Sheridan steps in to direct one of his own scripts, his first feature being a little known horror film titled Vile, and he makes the most of it. His script is first and foremost the main player in this story. It’s full of subtext and a grim commentary on the world we live in, but a good script doesn’t make a good movie. The actors need to give it justice, and they play Sheridan’s words like an orchestra. It’s really heavy hitting stuff, and audience members may have an uncomfortable time sitting through the more harrowing moments, but as a whole, the gut-punching experience makes for worthwhile cinema.
Everything is bleak and depressing. Humour isn’t something you’d find in a film like this. Characters wear drab, encapsulating clothing, bringing to life hidden themes and underlying connections. When going out to venture the snow, Jane is given an outfit that startles Cory. You don’t find out until later why this is, and it’s just one of the many examples of such a thing happening. Sheridan’s screenplay is the rope holding the entire film together, but without the individual components all falling perfectly together, the rope wouldn’t have anything to hold onto. It’s subtle and sad. The story takes genre conventions and showcases them in a new, fresh and meaningful way that makes a lasting impact on its unsuspecting audience.
You can’t really prepare for a movie like this. Wind River is the type of film you think you understand, but it manages to sneak up behind you and hit you over the back of the head. Characters are all layered and broken, each for different reasons, and their sorrow connects one another. The people of the reserve have a mutual respect and understanding for the harsh environments and even harsher citizens, which creates an interesting contrast when the first-day-on-the-job FBI agent shows up. She thinks she knows what she’s getting into, as do the audience, but she’s very much unprepared for the brutal reality and harsh points of view presented.
This isn’t a movie that’s disturbing in its content, although there’s plenty of that too, but more so in its upsetting themes and emotional resolution. It proves to be a difficult watch, but not in the ways one would expect, and as you’re taken on this downhill slope, things get out of hand. You’re deliberately provoked and forced to question the morally ambiguous. It’s the type of film that drags you under the water and holds you there, and you watch as your own mortality flashes before your eyes. Locations are shot with restraint beauty and grace, never bleak in style, only subject matter. Some of the pacing does tend to drag, and when things escalate, they escalate a little too dramatically, but the film’s final moments tie everything back together again.
Between this, Sicario and Hell or High Water, we have an unofficial crime trilogy, and it’s one of the finest trilogies in recent years. The three films, while completely separate in subject matter, have more in common than meets the eye, and when put together, we’re able to gain a new perspective on a broken America. Taylor Sheridan is only just getting started. Whatever he has coming up, I am in.
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