It’s always exciting when a talented screenwriter proves he has what it takes to be a full-on filmmaker. Such is the case with Taylor Sheridan, whose scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water are models of what livewire, literate thrillers should be. Wind River is no exception. Set on a Native American reservation in Wyoming, Sheridan’s directorial debut begins with the disturbing sight of a young girl, afraid for her life and running barefoot in the snow. She’s later identified as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), an 18-year-old whose body is found frozen in the snow.
The finder is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife officer charged with hunting down animal predators, such as wolves and mountain lions. Instead, he finds the victim of a rape and murder. An F.B.I. agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, doing hard-ass to a T) is called in from Las Vegas to investigate. The two lock horns immediately. He knows this land and understands the people who live there in poverty and racial strife; she does not. The conflict is established and the hunt for the killer is on, eventually leading back to oil-company land policed by private security teams.
That’s the set-up for what could have been a conventional whodunit – thankfully, Sheridan is allergic to all things conventional. To him, action is character, and he’s lucked out by finding actors who not only understand his approach but thrive on it. An actor himself – he had a recurring role on the FX series Sons of Anarchy – the writer-director knows how to give actors chances to shine in the spaces between words. That applies even to the smallest roles, especially Graham Greene’s reservation’s sheriff and Gil Birmingham’s grieving, gravity-radiating father. (Between this role and his turn as Jeff Bridges’ cop partner in Hell or High Water, the latter is quickly establishing himself as a supporting-actor MVP.)
Of course, the film’s two leads carry the burden of putting flesh and blood on the film’s themes, and both are exceptional. Olsen handles the role of a strong woman out of her element with a confidence that part bluff. Jane is taken back when the sheriff laughs off her request for backup: “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of ‘you’re on your own.'” And Renner, playing a divorced father coping with his own personal tragedy, nails every nuance in a role that’s mostly steeped in silence.
The same social, economic and political pressures that stream through Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and Hell or High Water, directed by David McKenzie, are also echoed in Sheridan’s first turn behind the camera. Good and evil are tackled with a rigorous fix on the complexity involved. Yes, his direction hits a few tonal bumps; he could have been tougher on his screenwriter on tightening the plot twists. No matter. Wind River packs an elemental power that knocks you for a loop.