Taylor Sheridan’s credits as a screenwriter (Sicario, Hell or High Water) have earned him acclaim around the globe. While WIND RIVER is his second feature as a director, following 2011’s locked room horror film Vile, it follows on thematically from his last few films as a writer.
In the bitterly cold wilderness outside the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the frozen body of a young woman. Rookie FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) recruits Lambert as a tracker to help her navigate the harsh landscape, uncovering a web of violence and darkness that is at stark odds with the whiteness of the snow.
As with Sheridan’s previous work, WIND RIVER explores line between society’s edge and what pushes people over it. Think of it as a frosted Western. The coldness of the Wyoming wilderness is a parallel to the West Texas desert in Hell or High Water, a landscape that takes a certain level of determination to survive. Or as Lambert succinctly puts it, “Luck doesn’t live out here.”
Renner’s straightforward pragmatism as Lambert (“I hunt predators”) masks a world of pain, with a character we slowly learn is still reeling from the emotional gut-punch of his own loss. It’s one of his most nuanced performances to date. Fellow Marvel hero Olsen similarly continues to explore her range, and as one of the few female leads in a sea of primal men, shows fierce determination. Yet it’s Gil Birmingham who gives an unforgettable turn as the grieving father, proudly keeping his emotions locked down until he is ready to let them pour out.
Cinematographer Ben Richardson shoots a magnificent landscape with a crisp lens, showcasing a seemingly endless tundra of mountains, snow-covered fields, and woods. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis once again join forces for an atmospheric score, with fragmented voices blowing through the audience like the bitter winds buffeting the cast.
At times brutal, and at others filled with sudden and frenetic action sequences and stand-offs, WIND RIVER elevates the mystery/thriller genre. It’s a testament to the people who may not have not chosen to live in impossible conditions, but still manage to fight for the very air in their lungs.
WIND RIVER screened at the Sydney Film Festival 2017. It releases in the US and Australia in August.