Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, Wind River stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a Wyoming-based hunter of natural predators who discovers the body of a young, barefoot Native American girl frozen in the snow, soon found to have been the victim of a rape. Alongside Vegas-based FBI agent June Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), the two of them investigate through the harsh, unforgiving terrain to find out what happened and to bring her assailants to justice.
Wind River is an undeniable slow-burn thriller mystery but therein lies its biggest flaw; the pacing in the first half of the film is incredibly testing, often excruciating, as Sheridan includes boatloads of slowly delivered character dialogue and monologues, much of which isn’t quite interesting enough to sustain interest. He’s clearly relying on his great aptitude for screenwriting, having impressed greatly with his past projects, but perhaps he should have been reigned in a little more, focusing more on story innovation and letting on-screen actions speak louder than his words. There perhaps isn’t enough actual material to sustain an entire film and much of it really feels like padding. On a personal level, I regrettably struggled to stay alert during the many long-winded speeches and feared that the film was veering dangerously close to two star territory, even preparing to use the awful word: “snoozer”.
But thankfully, things pick up in the second half after the foundations are laid, the characters are put in place and Wind River finally comes to life. There is much more of a tense, mysterious mood established through the ominous cinematography and tantalising score and as it moves further into its endgame, the film gets much more compelling and dramatic as the case is slowly solved. In particular, there’s an expertly orchestrated Mexican standoff in which the tension is palpable and overall excitement reaches its peak; the direction is accomplished, the actors give it all they’ve got and the musical accompaniment keeps the tension on a knife edge. Thankfully, the second half puts everything that came before into perspective and the plot concludes very satisfyingly, introducing some compelling developments such as the revelation of just what happened, the final confrontation and why Lambert joined the investigation in the first place.
Much like Hell or High Water, this film is thoughtful and meditative and there is a worthy attempt to do something a little different by looking at how the disappearances of Native American women are often completely ignored, as well as suggesting an overall mistreatment of Native Americans in general, evidenced by an early shot of a group huddling around a trash can fire on a reservation. The exploration of these issues is perhaps too subtle though, which is in a way a good thing because it ensures that the film is never too preachy but at the same time, it’s also too easy to walk away from the message and to forget what it was all supposed to be fundamentally about.
But despite a few nitpicky story issues and the film’s problematic pace, Sheridan’s script is of a high standard and the character dialogue is still well thought out and sharp, managing to get a few welcome funny lines in with all the drama. And in his sophomore outing as film director, Sheridan shows a great deal of promise as he clearly knows how to establish mood and tension and he uses the harsh, unforgiving film environment to help create an impressive sense of foreboding and uncertainty.
Regarding the two central performances, Jeremy Renner is a confident enough lead and his character is cool, calm, thoughtful, intelligent and resourceful. It’s an interesting character for Renner to play but maybe the film would have benefited more by having a Native American actor in the leading role; Renner’s character married into the Native American family, so it would make sense that he would develop a keen sense of tracking and animal behaviour but there are certain moments when Renner seems out of place and perhaps a tweak to the casting would have made more sense. Alongside, Elizabeth Olsen is very likeable as FBI agent June Banner and clearly shows that her character is out of her depth, a city agent who is ill-prepared for the harsh, unforgiving, snowy terrain. But despite this, and the fact that her characterization is a bit thin, she is clearly determined to find out what happened and shows herself to be a force to be reckoned with when required. Renner and Olsen work well together (Avengers reunion!) and are great to watch and support on screen.
And finally, the film’s musical accompaniment is remarkably similar to that of Hell or High Water. Because yet again, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide the music and, no surprise, it’s an incredible piece of work and goes well alongside the wintery visuals, setting tone and atmosphere brilliantly while also being thoughtful and reflective. It also contributes greatly in the more tension filled scenes; the score helps keep the tension on a knife edge.
Well directed, thoughtful, meditative and with a superb score but not enough original material to sustain a whole film and is often hindered by an incredibly testing pace.
★ ★ ★
Having watched the film for a second time, I realise that I was completely wrong in saying that Wind River has an excruciatingly slow pace during the first half. On the contrary, the strong story and expert dialogue leads to excellent character development and on the whole, the film is a very compact drama with a solid investigation story at its heart. It has strong messages about female strength and determination was well as powerful, well explored themes about grief and family.
I also appreciated Jeremy Renner’s performance a bit more and realise that it’s indeed one of his strongest roles yet and the same goes for Elizabeth Olsen – she’s a strong performer, that’s for sure.