With little directorial experience under his belt (in fact, nothing, aside from the moderately successful horror flick ‘Vile’ back in 2011), we could only go on Taylor Sheridan’s more publicised reputation as a writer and actor as to how his major-production-company debut would turn out. What ‘Sicario’ (2015) and ‘Hell or High Water’ (2016), Sheridan’s two prior, acclaimed screenplays (the latter for which he gardenered an Oscar and BAFTA nomination), had in common, was their licence to shock at unconventional moments. To avoid cliché in their vivid, at times discomfortigly realistic narratives, burrowing deep into the heart and soul of the corruption embedded into modern America.
For 2017’s ‘Wind River’, Sheridan’s third screenplay, he opted to take full creative control over the project, occupying the director’s seat as well as the writer’s for the first time in his comparatively short career. It’s a big undertaking for anyone, especially when handling as sensitive and harrowing a premise as this one: the body of a raped eighteen-year-old girl is found bloodied and frostbitten in the snow, in the desolate landscape of Wind River, a Native American settlement in Wyoming. And for Cory Lambert (a quiet, tender performance from Jeremy Renner), the unfortunate hunter who uncovers it, it’s an all-too-familiar tale: his daughter, Emily, had faced a similar fate three years before. And the latest victim is none other than her closest friend.
Since the cause of death cannot be listed as homicide (despite graphic evidence of her brutal attack, the technical cause of death is determined to be a pulmonary haemorrhage, the implosion of the lungs following the quick inhalation of sub-zero air), thus it is left to a lone FBI agent, inexperienced newcomer Jane Banner (a strong turn from Elizabeth Olsen) to track down her attacker/s. Seeking Cory’s knowledge of the largely uninhabited area and his experience as a hunter, Jane asks him, together with a tiny, poorly funded Tribal Police force (one of Sheridan’s many criticisms of the undermining of tribal communities in America) to solve the case, beginning with the search for the girl’s mysterious boyfriend, with whom she had been staying.
A simple murder-mystery this may seem, but Sheridan’s intentions here are not to focus on the individual suspects as much as to draw upon the bigger picture. “Based on true events”, we are told at the opening frame; in fact, Sheridan reveals that this story of a young Native American woman being sexually attacked and disappearing into the frozen landscape is based upon “thousands of actual stories just like it”. At the film’s powerful close, avoiding spoilers, we are made aware that no such accounting for these thousands of missing Native American woman and girls has ever taken place in the USA – the only community unaccounted for in the entire country. ‘Wind River’ aims to draw our attention to these unforgivable injustices, and it is this sense of realism that gives the film and its cast a unique sense of heart, a forlorn look in their eyes that can only attach itself to crippling loss.
Credit must also be given to the outstanding work of the team Sheridan has worked alongside on this project. Gary Roach’s editing is exceptional, making numerous surprising leaps back and forth in time which pack punches with their sudden and unexpected delivery. It keeps us on our toes throughout. Similarly, Ben Richardson’s grandiose cinematography perfectly captures the sense of desolation, and indeee desperation, attached to this isolated, neglected community, and the helpless characters lost inside it. There’s an overwhelming sense of vastness and bleakness here which, despite the often beautiful shots, only furthers the humbling effect of the film and its message.
It’s not all word-exchanges and long silences, however. For all their effect, ‘Wind River’ is equally a gripping and explosive thriller which erupts quite suddenly into a terrifying blitz of deafening gunfire and startling twists in the narrative. In this sense, it could reasonably be argued that the film does submiss itself to the usual cheap-thriller tropes, and yet here, it’s all executed with such extravagant brutality, such bone-chilling intensity, that you don’t find yourself dwelling on it. Sheridan doesn’t shirk the horrific details, just as the American government sweeps these women and girls under its carpet. They’re plain to see. It can hardly be called an entertaining experience, but ‘Wind River’ is a highly important, impeccably crafted and genuinely unsettling thriller with a bruised heart and tensed shoulders.
‘Wind River’ is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer here: