Wind River review – an exercise in drama, thrills, and storytelling

Paul Klein


As a director, despite murder thrillers being all the rage in cinema, and snow having been used as the blanket which can cover everything except guilt, Taylor Sheridan has crafted a brilliant and fresh take on the icey-sollitude murder-thriller. Having impressed everyone with his drug cartel thriller Sicario and modern western Hell or High Water, Sheridan has crafted a modern western that happens to complete his American Frontier trilogy.

Making the leap from writer to writer-director, in Wind River, Sheridan crafts a film where the setting is as much a character as the people around. The cold, snow covered landscapes make for a great canvas; there’s a reason the Swedish proverb tells us that what is buried in the snow comes forth in the thaw, red shows up so much better on white than on the emotionless landscapes of cities.

Sheridan has a clear line of argument, that the real injustice of modern society is how Native American women are treated by modern America. In this he crafts a story that engages emotionally, both breaking your heart and clenching your gut. Similarly, he knows how to build up suspense, and has learnt from his writing being directed by David McKenzie and Denis Villeneuve. He, along with cinematographer Ben Richardson know how to shoot landscapes. Even though people can do evil things, the director and his DOP let us know that the real threat is nature.

The story itself centres on tracker Corey, played by Jeremy Renner, who is enlisted by chief of police Ben (Graham Greene) and rookie FBI agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to solve the murder of local girl Natalie, a Native American woman found frost bitten, raped and dead.

Academy Award nominees Renner and Greene are both brilliant, easily carrying the best of the film along with Olsen who is shaping up to become an incredible actress to be rivalled with. In fact, across the board the acting is solid, with proper Native American actors filling the roles, like the reliable Gil Birmingham and Julia Jones in supporting roles.

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Actor Gil Birmingham plays Martin Hanson.

But the film really belongs to Sheridan who crafts a film that welcomes you in with landscapes that are both beautiful and foreboding, punctuating them with moments of shocking violence. It’s clear that he is a director to watch, and has the intent to get his message across even if he has to shock and upset.

His mastery works best when dealing with human emotion, either in emotional scenes showing the fall out of the woman murdered by her fathers off screen crying, or by the subtle way a conversation between two people leads into a story of pain and guilt.

The mystery at it’s heart is much less a whodunnit as a slow building of dread towards a western showdown, between the lawmen and the outlaws, and when the revelation comes it’s a harrowing ten minutes that ranks as one of the best moments of the year in cinema.

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Elizabeth Olsen plays FBI agent Jane Banner

The film doesn’t do a lot of speechifying, but it lets you know that the Native American community is living in the ruins of a land they once owned, with the girl’s body a metaphor for the way in which America has forgotten those who founded it. In these high times of racial tension, and with a work like Detroit also out, this is a timely reminder that no white man belongs in the land of the Free.

Like Sicario and Hell or High Water before it looks destined to become an awards contender and rightfully so, but it’s not just an awards courting film, it’s a brilliant thriller that is painterly and harrowing in equal measure.

That is not mentioning the off putting and foreboding score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis which at times make the soundtrack sound like dialogue, it’s almost as if the trees of the snowy forests are warning us that despite the bright reflection of the sun on the snow, we’re entering a dark dark territory.

As an exercise in drama, thrills, and storytelling, this is one of the best films released so far this year, and it helps that the cast know what Sheridan wants. It’s a shockingly violent modern western, but one that has the emotional core to carry you through to it’s conclusion which, when it comes, it’s both heart breaking and hopeful. It’s not just that the film sheds light on a great injustice in our society, many films this year have, but it does so in a way which draws you into a film that – taking the current political climate out of it – is a well told story of a murder mystery that plays secondary to the characters and to their interactions.

Sheridan and his collaborators have made one hell of a movie, and if it’s not up there come awards season then it looks like there’s even more injustice in the world. It’s really good.

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