A veteran tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Service helps to investigate the murder of a young Native American woman, and uses the case as a means of seeking redemption for an earlier act of irresponsibility which ended in tragedy.
By far, one of my favorite film from 2016 was the sleeper hit, and Academy Award nominee, Hell or High Water. Today’s film, Wind River is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote both Hell or High Water and another outstanding film, Sicario. This is now three for three for Sheridan and he is now comfortably on my “watch anything they make” list.
Like both Sicario and Hell or High Water, Wind River continues a clear style for Sheridan which is very subdued and deliberate. The movie is just one pump fake after another, with a slow build-up followed by a quick release of energy – oftentimes when you’re not expecting it. Wind River takes place in the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming: very few people, surrounded by vasts amounts of wide-open snow-covered lands. It’s a place filled with emptiness, nothing but the silence to keep you company. Combine that with a murder mystery and this film is ripe for jump scares and pulse pounding scenes despite a remote setting and a low-budget. In fact, probably since Hell or High Water this is probably the most intense, stress-inducing film I’ve seen.
And again, it all goes back to Sheridan’s subdued style. He’s certainly not showy, but he also doesn’t try and hide what’s going on. We’re guided through the story and the lands by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a hunter who discovers the frozen and mutilated body of local Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille). She was raped and murdered, but as the coroner points out, died from burst lungs after running barefoot for six miles in freezing temperatures. Being a mystery, you’re constantly guessing whodunnit, and having seen my fair share, the usual suspects crossed my mind (no, not those). In a not so subtle way, there is curiosity abound when we visit Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham) and again when we visit the house her brother is staying at. I even briefly suspected Ben Shoyo, Tribal Police Chief (Graham Greene) because by the conventional book, a shocking twist is going to involve someone we’ve seen and seems 100% innocent. As Sheridan has proven though with his other films, you can’t put any trust into your instincts because you’ll be surprised by the surprise.
If I had to point to one problem in the film, it would be the third act. Sheridan handled it well and the scene transition that happens is masterful; supremely well done – I was grinning for a solid minute just at how great the transition was (not to overhype it, but alas). Taken individually, I couldn’t point to anything wrong, but in the context of the whole movie it does feel more out of left field than other things, and not grounded enough for me to completely roll with it. This is purposefully avoiding specifics, because spoilers, but it’s this last bit, “the reveal” so-to-speak that deflates what builds up over the previous hour. Again, the contents of the reveal are surprising (and intense and stress-inducing as I mentioned above), it’s the incorporation that feels subpar.
Even with this caveat, I cannot recommend watching Wind River highly enough. And while you’re at it, also go watch Sicario and for sure Hell or High Water.
4 out of 5