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Around this time last year, a movie silently dropped into theaters that blew me away. Not a lot of folks knew it was there, but those who went to watch it were treated to a modern day western full of fantastic performances and superb direction, all derived from a brilliant script written by Taylor Sheridan.
That film was Hell or High Water, and even though it didn’t make a huge splash at the late summer box office, it was surprisingly remembered come Awards Season and garnered many nominations, including Best Screenplay and Best Picture for both the Oscars and Golden Globes. Sheridan is not only back as a writer, but director, too, with the new film Wind River. Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) works as a game tracker for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming. He tracks down predators that threaten the herds of the local ranches. While out on the Wind River Indian Reservation one day, he comes across the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson, a resident of the reservation. She is barefoot, with signs of having been beaten and raped, and had run for miles in the snow.
Since the land is federally owned, the FBI sends in an agent to assess the situation and report their findings. That agent is Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a rookie from the Las Vegas office. Making any headway is difficult, even with the help of the Tribal Police. She asks Corey to assist her, since he knows the people and the land. Corey agrees, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but he has his own personal reasons to see this case solved.
Like the land in which it takes place, Wind River is a harsh and relentless film. It’s an intense slow burn that builds to a climax that gives up its revelation in a sudden and explosive burst. It’s the kind of moment of great filmmaking that causes the audience to hold their breaths, something they may not even be aware they’re doing until it’s all over and they finally exhale.
This is Sheridan’s second attempt at directing, and the first time he wrote the screenplay. He was gifted to work with two very talented directors on his first two produced scripts (Denis Villeneuve on Sicario and David Mackenzie on Hell or High Water), and he apparently learned a lot from them. Without knowing who was at the helm, you could easily have thought it was one of those other two.
Sheridan shows a talent and eye for shot composition, accurately depicting the rough life in rural Wyoming, especially how hard it is for the Native Americans. Nothing is stylized or painted a Hollywood gloss in order to make things more delicious. Added to this is a wonderfully bleak score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, filled with sparse orchestrations and haunting moans and whispers.
Renner is very believable as Lambert. If there’s one Hollywood celeb who looks like he works on a ranch in his free time, it’s definitely Renner, and it helps bring a realism to this role. Olsen has the intelligence to make you believe that she’s actually an FBI special agent, and can also bring that innocence that makes you not only believe her as a newbie, but makes you feel for her struggles on what’s clearly one of her first assignments.
Wind River brings to mind the superb 1992 film Thunderheart, but while that one was a little more style than substance, Wind River is all substance. Once again, Taylor Sheridan has delivered a late summer movie that has wrecked the list to be one of my favorites of the year, so far. One that similarly deserves to be remembered come award nomination time.