Taylor Sheridan, the celebrated screenwriter of such superb suspense dramas as Sicario and Hell or High Water, graduates to the commanding role of director in his murder mystery Wind River and somehow becomes a significantly worse writer in the process. His directorial debut has all the hallmarks of a Sheridan script, from the earnest treatment of its grim subject matter to a lack of subtlety in the observing of its themes, but the tight plotting, rich character work, and sense of stirring believability are conspicuously absent in his latest effort.
After tackling the drug war stretching across the U.S./Mexico border and the effects of the recent financial crisis on dusty small-town America, Sheridan now turns his attention to the tragic disappearance of aboriginal women and the lack of resources reserved for their cases. It's a noble aim and a subject worth attending to, but Sheridan pens a plot so pitifully flat that it renders his good intentions null and void.
He also ensures that the heroes of the story are a white man and woman, which feels awfully convenient in Hollywoodized terms. Sheridan couldn’t take a much more predictable casting route than handing Graham Greene a stoic cop role that amounts to nearly nothing and making his leads a pair of Avengers actors, but this is the nature of intimate indies with commercial prospects.
Jeremy Renner plays a Fish & Wildlife agent who travels around snowy Wyoming hunting big game. While visiting family on the titular native reservation and searching in the remote woods for a pesky mountain lion, Renner’s cool-headed Cory stumbles upon the frozen body of a young woman that he once knew. Enter Elizabeth Olsen as a tough FBI agent named Jane who is flown into the frigid, storm-riddled area to investigate the suspicious death.
Jane’s arrival affords Sheridan the opportunity to employ a bunch of fish-out-of-water tropes and to further tease out Cory’s tragic backstory that gives him a personal stake in solving this murder mystery. None of this is very interesting and all of it reeks of familiarity, a series of jokes and gruff comments and sentimentalized motivation that feels artlessly plucked from some indie thriller handbook.
While Sheridan’s work has never been particularly understated, the heart-on-its-sleeve sermonizing of his previous scripts has been tied to taut, knotted tales of moral ambiguity. Here there’s no such gray area and the writer/director’s greater point is lost in the snow-swept narrative. Every effort is made to ensure the villains are brought to audience-assuaging justice, which goes against the grain of Sheridan’s message that these cases are swept under the rug and ignored.
Perhaps a story about the impossibility of solving the mystery or the bureaucratic red tape that makes the solving difficult would have better served the filmmaker’s interests. Instead, we get a movie about virtuous heroes who follow an astonishingly simple set of breadcrumbs to the doorstep of some hideously monstrous murderers and then make them pay for their crimes in suspenseless fashion.
It’s an easy way out of a dark, troublesome story and Sheridan’s decision-making feels misguided at best, disingenuous at worst. Beyond the main plot, Cory even has a young son that he’s supposed to spend the weekend with before the murder investigation becomes a higher priority. Early on, it appears that the son’s presence will be an important piece of Cory’s characterization, but Sheridan increasingly ignores the child until eventually forgetting about him entirely.
Considering how much the movie is about Cory exorcising his own demons, his son clearly has a role to play in the bigger picture, but as Sheridan turns his attention to the straightforward mystery and some crisp depictions of violence, he quickly exhausts any desire to explore the usefulness of characters beyond the murder’s periphery.
This is the strange thing about Wind River. It’s a movie in need of several rewrites, characters cut, focus added, thematic insight strengthened, and some extra plot turns sprinkled throughout, all of which one would expect a seasoned screenwriter to spot. Instead, Sheridan proves himself a capable director with some decent compositions and a workable ensemble. Becoming a director has simply, strangely made him a worse writer.
Beyond the script, Renner’s performance isn’t close to being on par with the stunning work by Emily Blunt in Sicario or the tremendous trio of talent that was Ben Foster, Chris Pine, and Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water, so Wind River falls short in multiple areas when compared to Sheridan’s other credits.
That Renner’s role borrows ingredients from nearly all the parts he's played in the past several years, down to the detail that he’s a slick sharpshooter like his Avengers character Hawkeye, only adds to the soupy feel that we’ve seen much of this before. At least the photography is certainly pretty and Olsen gives a strong performance that appears natural enough to be believable.
Sheridan immerses us in the Wind River community and respectfully observes the customs and attitudes and fears of the locals, which lends the movie a weighty authenticity at times. But these positives exist only in the cracks between a brittle plot and a couple soggy character arcs. For the most part, this is a simplistic murder mystery that undercuts its main theme with an awkward adherence to commercially comfortable clichés. Sheridan’s directing doesn’t compensate for the sudden shortcomings in his writing and so the expectedly heavy-handed delivery of the movie’s message lands dully and damply.