Character actor Taylor Sheridan has built a budding career in screenwriting, penning 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water (full disclosure: Sicario was my favorite film of 2015). Sheridan builds stories driven by characters, a rich sense of location, and a looming threat of violence. His directorial debut — from a script by himself — does have elements in common with what made his previous work so surprisingly great, except for the most important element of all: those other films weren’t directed by him. Wind River is evidence that Sheridan has his niche as a writer, but has a long way to go as a director.
The story kicks off when a small town’s game tracker, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), happens upon a dead body of a young woman on a Native American reservation. He ends up teaming with the young FBI agent sent to investigate, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), to catch the killer.
Wind River really goes to show just how much Denis Villeneuve brought to Sicario, and how much David Mackenzie brought to Hell or High Water. Sheridan’s material really benefits from a filmmaker who can magnify themes and investigate the characters visually, someone who can make poetry of scenes and moments. Sheridan’s first time as a director really shows, and ends up hampering what could have been a unique film, instead of something that feels like a longer episode of NCIS: Wyoming. The revelations of what happened to the young woman ultimately don’t really make any of what we’ve witnessed more interesting, nor do they add any new layers. Aside from a welcome surprise appearance from Jon Bernthal, there’s not much to be gained from the sequence aside from a longer runtime.
The cast is capable, but never quite enough to elevate Sheridan’s script, as scenes feel rushed and haphazardly measured. It’s always nice to see Jeremy Renner not in a stale Hollywood actioner, and he lives the weariness of Lambert well. Elizabeth Olsen brings a certain sense of authentic feeling to her stereotype character of an FBI agent out of her depth. Sheridan also assembles an MVP roster of Native American actors in Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham (fresh off a terrific performance in Hell or High Water), who both deliver quality work. But even a cast as terrific this just feels wasted on mediocre material.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide a wondrous, haunting score as always, but Sheridan doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. It’s a rare score that is best listened to isolated away from the film, because the way Sheridan lays it over scenes doesn’t do much to elevate or embolden what’s going on. It only ends up making certain scenes feel almost hammy, because what we’re watching isn’t good enough for Cave and Ellis. Sheridan’s direction and camerawork is largely point and shoot; there’s rarely an image or moment in the film that sticks with you. He has a magnificent talent in Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) as cinematographer, yet seems to put him to waste in hand-held camerawork that doesn’t do anything to deepen or enhance any of what’s happening on screen.
It’s almost like Sheridan doesn’t seem to know what he wants out of this film. There are interesting avenues for the story to travel down, such as discussions about how this country has treated Native Americans throughout history and how we continue to now, and themes about man versus the cold indifference of the wilderness, but Sheridan doesn’t seem to know how articulate these thoughts on film. Plenty of pieces are there for another great film with Sheridan’s name on it, but he can’t seem to weave them together on screen. I’m still interested in any script Sheridan is a part of, but I’m just much more hesitant if he’s directing now.