Just two years ago, Taylor Sheridan was best known (if he was known at all) as Deputy Chief David Hale on Sons of Anarchy. Since his departure from that show, however, he has emerged as one of the best and brightest screenwriters at work today; 2015’s Sicario and 2016’s Hell or High Water both made my year-end Top 5 lists.
Turns out what he really wanted to do was direct, and with Wind River he wraps up his “Frontier Trilogy”, sitting in the director’s chair. Working from his own script, Sheridan continues to prove he has a gift for the written word and now, also, a keen eye (and along the way he makes up for his low-budget directorial debut, 2011’s Saw-esque horror flick Vile). As raw, emotional, and powerful as his two preceding screenplays, Wind River is a haunting and desolate masterpiece—a superbly crafted tale of crime and punishment as brutal and unforgiving as its snow-covered setting.
Jeremy Renner stars as Cory Lambert, a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent who spends his days hunting down nefarious critters on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. While out tracking a mountain lion he comes across the frozen remains of a Native American teenage girl. Not only was she clearly murdered, she was a friend of Lambert’s own daughter, whose mysterious death three years ago still haunts him.
Greenhorn FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is dispatched to the reservation to determine the cause of death, and since the medical examiner lists the cause of death as exposure, FBI protocol prevents additional agents from being called to the scene. That leaves Banner and Lambert to solve the case themselves.
Renner has never been better, and even though the part was written for Chris Pine (who had to drop out for Wonder Woman), he makes it his own, bring the perfect amount of ruggedness and compassion to make Lambert not only multi-dimensional but also achingly real. When he shares with Banner the story of his daughter’s death, about halfway through the film, his simple yet heartbreaking performance in that one scene alone is worth the price of admission. Olsen is more than up for the task, too, imbuing Banner with innocence and conviction and turning her into one of the more memorable characters to appear on screen so far this year. The supporting cast also shines, including Gil Birmingham as the victim’s father and Graham Greene as the local police chief.
Wind River, though, is Sheridan’s baby, and he delivers a phenomenal film, certainly worthy of award consideration but more importantly worthy of your time in the near future. It’s full of both white knuckle suspense and harrowing drama, neither of which let up until the credits roll.