Taylor Sheridan, known mostly for his role in “Sons of Anarchy” to mainstream audiences, seems to have a good mind for thrillers presenting a trilogy of recent films, that I like to call the “Thrillogy”, focusing on different storylines and underlying themes that have captured audiences nationwide. The third, and so far final entry in the core Thrillogy is “Wind River”, a mystery thriller focusing on a hunter-for-hire and an FBI agent who try to track down the culprit or culprits behind the death of an American Indian woman found frozen to death in the Wind River Indian Reservation. Similar to Sheridan’s other works, “Wind River” is captivating and engaging and while it has its flaws I personally found it to be one of the most well rounded and pleasant film going experiences of the year to date.
“Wind River” gets it name from its setting and follows survivalist and hunter Cory Lambert, played by Jeremy Renner, and young FBI agent Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen, as they team up to unravel the mystery of how and why a young American Indian woman ended up miles into the woods on her own before dying due to exposure to the elements. With the examination of the body showing signs of rape and mistreatment, and the young girl being identified as the best friend of Lambert’s deceased daughter who also died under mysterious unrelated circumstances, the search becomes a very personal one as the pieces come together leading to a riveting conclusion.
“Wind River” first of all contains some amazing settings and storytelling elements that, while cliché on the surface, present a smooth and engaging tale with memorable characters and a heartfelt story of desperation for answers that involves many different players. Going into the film I wasn’t completely sure what to expect and by the half hour mark, despite the story taking it’s time getting to the nitty gritty elements of the mystery, I found myself engaged and mesmerized by the beautiful cinematography, the character arcs, and the pacing. The film plays out like a good book, calmly bringing the audience in to the lives of the people on screen as we learn about Cory Lambert’s profession as a hired hunter, his jaded family life, and his connection to the Native Americans on the Wind River Reservation. By the time Olsen’s Jane Banner comes into the picture she assimilates seamlessly into the story as a no-nonsense rookie who wants to take the case very seriously knowing that the circumstances of the death will mean it will go ignored in a short time. Smooth transitions, well executed establishing shots (which I’ll get to later), and a mesmerizing and subtle soundtrack all come together in a well packaged thriller that hits all the right notes.
In terms of acting, Olsen and Renner are center stage throughout the film as two separate personalities and people who come together for a bigger purpose. Their character’s are well defined and well presented as Renner plays a calm hunter who is seeking out a new pray while avoiding getting lost in the cliché of emotions that damaged character’s usually preset. Renner’s Lambert is flawed, but he’s a confident man with his eyes on the goal ahead who knows how to control his emotions.
Meanwhile Olsen’s Banner starts off as an overconfident rookie who evolves into a more humble and fragile character as she sees the impact the situation has on the family of the lost woman and begins to understand the racial divide that exists between herself and the Indian people who have been confined to the Wind River Reservation. These are two very different character who play off each other very nicely and the chemistry and dynamic between Renner and Olsen, no doubt stemming from their shared experience in two Marvel films to date, is spectacular. Renner’s Lambert becomes a mentor to Banner while Olson’s Banner becomes a daughter figure for Lambert who he takes under his wing, which is strange to say considering there’s also some subtle romantic chemistry there as well.
“Wind River” also contains a spectacular and deep story. While it takes a while to get to the climax and show us exactly what happened the unraveling of the mystery at hand is a fun one to follow and keeps you guessing right up to the climactic moments where a satisfying “ah ha!” moment takes place. All the while we see how this death effects everyone, from Banner’s revelations about racial divide to Lambert reliving the death of his daughter and the emotional tole losing a loved one has on an American Indian couple whose people have lost everything and now they themselves have lost someone integral to their own lives. Themes of parental struggles, regret, and revenge are all very relevant as the story progresses making for a film that explores not only how far one will go to solve such a mystery, but also the depths that such a crime came reach and how far it’s impact can spread.
That being said, Director and writer Taylor Sheridan doesn’t try too hard at any point to keep you guessing. It just happens naturally as numerous elements of the film draw the viewer in and keeps people invested in how everything will play out. We want this to be solved, we want the good guys to come out on top, but we also know that, in the end, people will suffer and possibly lose their lives or even their humanity to gain the truth. “Wind River” strikes a great balance that allows the viewer to experience natural emotions and revelations that many films and filmmakers try to force into their films. Sheridan is smart enough to know his audience will connect with the film and put the pieces together on their own. He doesn’t have to try too hard, and the movie is better off for it.
If there is one flaw to be found in “Wind River” it’s that the film does depend heavily on an overabundance of creative cuts that, in all honesty, annoyed the living hell out of me especially near the end. You can only show trucks and snowmobiles driving through and around the woods so many times before it gets a little repetitive. If I’m being honest, the amount of establishing shots, no matter how well shot they are, was a little overboard. We get it, Wyoming is beautiful, the Wind River Reservation is an imperfect mess, and the area the film covers is expansive to say the least. It’s a strange criticism for a film really and sometimes establishing shots and cut after cut of traveling vehicles can add to the feel and atmosphere of a film, but not here. “Wind River” is perfect in so many ways, but not in this department. While Sheridan was extremely reserved and held back on almost everything he tried to accomplish with this film the one thing he did overindulge in seems like the most pointless aspect of the film to go overboard with. Maybe he did it to try and produce a better sense of the expanse of the setting, maybe he did it because he thought the shots added to the visual beauty of the film. Regardless, the overabundance of cuts and establishing shots take away from an otherwise beautiful project and, worst of all, bloat the run time while adding nothing to the already great suspense of this mystery thriller.
Despite that however, “Wind River” still stands as a top notch film in a Thrillogy of great projects that are all examples of what controlled and focused directing and writing can accomplish. The thriller genre is a tough one to tackle, probably second only to horror really in terms of creating an effective product of high quality, but Taylor Sheridan seems to know how to get the job done and while his writing has made him a household Hollywood name this film proves once and for all that he can be just as effective behind the camera. A committed cast, beautiful setting, and smart writing make “Wind River” a fluid and incredibly satisfying cinematic experience. Combine this with its underlying theme to draw attention to the lack of concern or attention towards violence against American Indian women and the emotional depth of the impact it’s plot-driving death has on the characters and you have a film that is not only effective and beautiful, but also contains heart and a soul putting it in the upper echelon of thriller films in the new millennium.