Movie review: Crime and punishment and a thrilling search for justice in ‘Wind River’
At a preview screening of “Wind River,” as the end credits were scrolling by, one of the critics in the audience said to himself, but loud enough for everyone around him to hear, “More proof that writers shouldn’t be allowed to direct.”
He was referring to Taylor Sheridan, who has on his resume the terrific scripts for “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” (for which he was Oscar nominated). The script for “Wind River” gives Sheridan a hat trick of sculpting words and ideas for the screen. He does have one previous directing gig under his belt, the little-seen horror film “Vile” (which he did not write). But getting back to the inane remark made by my critic cohort (and not even taking into consideration names including, Woody Allen, Christopher Nolan, the Wachowskis, the Coens, etc.), “Wind River” is not only a great piece of writing, it’s also one of the best-directed films of the year. It weaves together all sorts of disparate elements into a fascinating, seamlessly coherent study of people who feel lost, who are trying to cope with bad cards that they’ve been dealt. It also happens to be a crackling thriller that works as well as it does because of the triple threat of that script, some fine acting, and the vision of Sheridan, who put it all together.
Set amid the harsh, unforgiving elements of a Wyoming winter, the contemporary story kicks off with a troubling scene of a frightened teenage girl running across a vast, snow-covered field under a full moon. No clue as to what’s going on is offered, and the film cuts to a pack of wolves slowly creeping up on a flock of nervous sheep. It’s a good thing that wildlife officer Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is nearby, camouflaged, rifle in hand, carrying out his duties against the wolves.
By the time Renner has once again displayed his acting chops, in an amazing, deeply nuanced performance that presents a character whose outward calmness hides an awful sadness and a deep rage on the inside, we’ve come to know his Lambert as a dependable and determined worker, a loving dad (who is divorced but still speaks with his wife and has visitation rights with their son), and a cunning and crafty man who always wants right to triumph over wrong.
Called to the Wind River Indian Reservation to get rid of some mountain lions that are threatening the livestock, he stumbles upon the dead, frozen, barefoot body of 18-year-old Natalie, the girl seen running away from who-knows-what at the beginning. The tribal police chief (Graham Greene) calls in the FBI, but only manages to get one person: Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a Floridian who is stationed in Las Vegas and finds herself completely out of her element in this place but was, as she glumly explains, “the closest agent to the scene.”
She immediately calls the crime a rape and a homicide, but is frustrated by the limitations of assistance around her. Speaking to Lambert, who, after all, found the body, she says, “What do you do?” He replies, “I hunt predators.” She follows with, “So, how about hunting one for me?”
Great dialogue, and great storytelling to match. When Lambert visits the dead girl’s grieving father, Martin (Gil Birmingham, who played Jeff Bridges’ deputy in “Hell or High Water”), it’s revealed that the two men are old friends, and that Lambert’s grief is due to the loss of his own daughter, under mysterious circumstances, a few years earlier. A later scene of Lambert attempting to tell Agent Banner about it is tear-inducing.
But the film really finds its footing when the search for the killer gets underway, another body is found in the snow, more police are called in, a feverish flashback shows what led up to the initial crime, there’s a standoff between authorities and locals, and everything leads to a tense and eventually explosively violent series of events.
In the end, justice is doled out, and that grumpy critic is proven wrong. Taylor Sheridan is an excellent writer-director. He’s already finished the script for “Soldado,” the follow-up to “Sicario.” I’m looking forward to whatever he directs next.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan
With Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene