The Noirish Delights of ‘Wind River’

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It doesn’t take long into Wind River to realize that Taylor Sheridan is one of the best noir writers working today.

He carries with him, of course, the weight of his two previous films: last year’s astounding Hell or High Water and 2015’s surprise hit Sicario. That’s a heavy one-two combo for any screenwriter, let alone a new one. Both films were eventually nominated for Oscars, with Sheridan himself getting the screenwriting nod for Hell or High Water. Wind River probably won’t get the same acclaim as his two previous efforts, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less astonishing an effort.

Both Hell or High Water and Sicario were character studies masked behind a façade of grandiosity. They were movies exploring big ideas through a humanistic lens, allowing their themes to come to light through their characters. The horrors of the Drug War were exposed via Emily Blunt’s increasingly traumatized Kate Macer in Sicario; the practices of shady banking which led to the housing crisis were given a face via Chris Pine’s Toby Howard in Hell or High Water.

That trend is continued in Wind River, which finds Sheridan waxing philosophical on the plight of missing native women in America. This time, however, Sheridan pulls double duty, directing as well as writing. Though lacking anything as memorable as the tunnel scene from Sicario or the chase scenes in Hell or High Water, Sheridan proves himself to be a talented multidisciplinarian, crafting a claustrophobic work that matches his taut narrative.

After Parks and Wildlife hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) finds the dead body of local native woman Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) in the Wyoming wilderness, he begins an investigation alongside outsider FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) in order to discover what happened. Their search for the truth leads them down a twisting road of lies and coverups that cuts deep into the heart of the problems affecting the native peoples of the Wind River reservation.

While both of his previous screenplays felt more epic in scope, Wind River finds Sheridan narrowing his vision considerably. The relative seclusion of the reservation in the mountains of Wyoming provides precious little superfluous character or action, creating an intensely small-in-scope story that offers a powerful kick. If Sicario and Hell or High Water were epic works, Wind River is more like a novella, with all its considerable weight compressed into a bite size package.

Wind River’s central narrative is fairly straight forward noir-mystery fare. As a whodunnit, it doesn’t stray far off its path. The discovery of the body kick starts a trail that winds, but never worries about misdirection. The simplicity of how it unfolds allows Sheridan to devote time to character, which in turn reflects on his larger thematic aims.

This is a film about isolation, both personal (Lambert is emotionally isolated following the death of his daughter) and cultural (the natives on the Wind River reservation are isolated from the outside world, and are forced to rely on themselves for survival). The starkness of the scenery is almost a character in itself, representing the oppressive reality facing the inhabitants of this mountainous region. Death nips at the heels of everything, testing the strength of anyone and everyone who dares call this area home.

Sheridan presents this well both in his writing and his directing. His script is superb, unfolding with a cool deliberation that never loses itself in its narrative. Exposition is delivered slowly and intriguingly throughout the film, always giving the audience the hint of more explanation without beating them over the head. Characters reveal themselves over time, allowing Sheridan to build to his explosive finale. This is matched well by the foreboding surroundings, which are shot beautifully by cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Though largely taking place in wide open spaces, the lurking prospect of death creates an oppressive atmosphere that fully matches Sheridan’s tone and aims.

It also features a beautifully haunting score from Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds collaborator Warren Ellis. Their score work is always fantastic, but here it almost becomes a character unto itself. Its stark violin-led sound accentuates the melancholy of Wind River, and rooted as it is in folk sensibilities it adds an incredible depth to the horror of the tale. It’s as chilling as mountain air, and represents some of Cave’s best musical work in years.

Though it never became the box office smash of its predecessors, Wind River is a perfectly wonderful follow up to Sheridan’s previous two screenplays that’s more than worth the watch. Sadly, its Blu-ray release is woefully short on special features. It would have been nice to hear Sheridan discuss his film on a commentary track, and some behind the scenes footage and interviews could have shed some light on the process of its filming. This, however, is a film that stands on its own. Even without the bells and whistles of special features, Wind River makes a fantastic addition to your home video collection.

Wind River is now available to own on Blu-ray.

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