“Wind River,” the third major commercial film of Oscar-nominated writer and director Taylor Sheridan, debuted on Aug. 25, promising audiences an intense, snow-filled thriller and mystery. A limited release project, the film only premiered in local theaters, Springfield’s Chakeres Cinema being among those chosen for its debut.
Sheridan, hot off of his critical success from 2016’s “Hell or High Water” and 2015’s “Sicario,” worked to perfect his vision for the film, crafting an intriguing yet respectful narrative surrounding crime in and around Native American reservations. And while Sheridan’s characters, core message and execution are wild successes, the film’s slow start, abrupt climax and visual shortcomings prevent audiences from fully delving into the world of “Wind River.” The film follows a game hunter (Jeremy Renner) living in Wyoming, working in and around the Wind River Native American Reservation. After finding the frostbitten body of a reservation girl (Kelsey Chow) miles away from civilization, Renner’s character is swept up in the investigation, led by the reservation chief of police (Graham Greene) and an ill-prepared FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) from Las Vegas. Grappling with issues from his past, Renner’s character feels compelled to help solve what they all suspect to be an extreme case of rape and murder.
“Wind River” is by far Renner’s most detailed, convincing, and emotional performance. His methodology captures the atmosphere that rural Wyoming conjures and convinces audiences to leave behind the Avengers Hawkeye stigma that has followed him since he first donned the role in 2012. Renner clearly connected with his character, as his dark past is visible in the character’s face, dialogue and emotional connections with the locals of the Reservation.
Gil Birmingham, who plays the father of the murdered girl, also delivers an intense, emotional performance, matching blow for blow Renner’s intensity, though in a significantly smaller role. Birmingham’s own emotional distress opens the door for Renner’s character to escape the past.
Chow’s portrayal of a girl unexpectedly forced into a horrific situation captivates and disgusts viewers, stealing their breath and holding their eyes, even when they desperately want to look away. Though her screen time is limited, her emotional impact on Renner, Birmingham and the audience drives home the film’s integrity.
The performances of Olsen and Greene, both seasoned actors, felt one-dimensional. While many of their lines showed writer Sheridan’s extreme skill in crafting interesting and life-like exposition, their performances often seemed phoned in.
Olsen seemed to be less of a rookie FBI agent and more of an annoyed fish-out-of-water when she should have been a terrified fish-out-of-water. She also failed to rise to the intensity of the film’s climax when things quickly fell out of hand.
The soundtrack, scored by film veterans Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, captivated the cold, desolate feel of the reservation with airy, haunting violin arrangements, icy bells and chimes, and deep, whispery vocals in the film’s most intense moments.
While the dialogue and sountrack showed Sheridan’s experience with writing, his inexperience with directing was obvious in the film’s shots and camera angles. Many of the dialogue sequences were cluttered and tight, despite characters being outside or in large rooms. Often, it felt as if the piece was being directed by a student filmmaker with a drone camera. To that end, the sweeping, breathtaking landscapes of Wyoming were severely underplayed; Sheridan neglected to adequately display the visual contrast between the beauty of the surrounding area and the horrors of the reservation, a lost moment which would have engrossed audiences in both the narrative and the visual appeal of the film. The visual sequences which did display the landscape of the Wind River reservation felt flat and awkward, showing more of the snowy ground than the towering mountains and pine-speckled valleys. Only a few shots of the Wyoming landscape managed to be genuinely breathtaking and gorgeous, but those that were given a peek at the film’s visual potential.
And although Sheridan is deeply entrenched in the screenplay-writing field, the film’s pacing left much to be desired. The plot starts slowly and picks up little steam until almost 70 percent of the way through the film. Of course, that isn’t to say the first 80 minutes of the film aren’t interesting; in fact, they are arguably the best part. And instead of unraveling the story of what happened to Chow’s character as each clue was discovered, audiences were left to see the entire backstory unfold just as the film’s climax was building; and seconds after a horrifically gruesome act of sexual violence occurs, the outrageously violent climax blows up the entire back end of the movie, leaving the first part feeling underplayed. Both parts of the film are equally enthralling and entertaining, but when spliced together, the audience is left with a kind of movie whiplash.
Despite these flaws, “Wind River” is still an intense, enjoyable thriller. It is fascinating to watch and, truthfully, only shows its flaws to those who search for them; most moviegoers will be left with a sense of terrifying urgency for the safety of Native American women on reservations all over the United States. “Wind River” is not a good date movie, a movie to see with your family or a movie for those who are sensitive to sexual violence; however, the standout performances, realistic atmosphere and intense dialogue of the film craft a mysterious thriller that, in its final moments, becomes a striking think-piece, keeping the events of the film on the audience’s mind for days after. “Wind River,” while imperfect, is a standout amongst the mediocre late-summer movie lineup and is certainly worth watching– if you’re up to the thrill.