'Wind River' follows a Florida-born FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen, 'Avengers: Age of Ultron', 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'), who teams with a government animal trapper named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner, 'Arrival', 'The Hurt Locker'), after the body of a barefoot teenage girl is found frozen in the snow in the rugged and wintry mountains of Wyoming, miles away from any buildings. The investigation brings them into conflict with the closed Native American community.
'Wind River' is directed and written by Taylor Sheridan in his directorial debut. Except... it's not.
Taylor Sheridan's directorial debut was an independent horror film called 'Vile' in 2011 (the sole critics review on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as: "An almost comically terrible 'Saw' knockoff"). But "directorial debut" sounds good in interviews and pull-quotes (as seen on the Sydney Film Festival website). Plus, Sheridan would probably prefer his flourishing personal brand to be associated with gritty neo-Westerns rather than a lame micro-budget horror film.
'Wind River' is also Sheridan's first screenplay which he didn't write on spec and the final instalment in his thematic American Frontier trilogy of screenplays, the others filmed as the critically-adored 'Sicario' (2015) and 'Hell or High Water' (2016) - both character-rich pieces that quietly subvert their genres' predecessors. 'Wind River' attempts a similar subversion by largely circumventing the usual aspects of the procedural thriller. Aside from Lambert using his skills as a tracker, there is very little gathering of clues or detective work.
Like Emily Blunt in 'Sicario', Elizabeth Olsen is given little to work with as a beautiful yet embarrassingly inept FBI agent in an unfamiliar location. Like Benicio del Toro in 'Sicario', Jeremy Renner plays a bad-ass with omnipotent survival skills, avenging a tragic family history as he guides Olsen's character throughout the film. Unlike his role in 'Sicario', Jon Bernthal flips the script and plays a different variation of "dude who takes his shirt off" in a small but pivotal role.
As the lead actor, Renner turns in a so-so performance as Lambert (in a role originally intended for Chris Pine). Lambert was once happily married to a Native American woman and had two children, but now nurses a private pain due to a family tragedy - a tragedy that impels him to investigate the death of the young Native American woman on nearby reservation land. Renner is believable as a man of action (this is the actor who was once tapped to replace Matt Damon in the 'Bourne' franchise) but is unable to tap into the necessary stoicism and emotional depth for the role. The film's stand-out performances come from the always-watchable Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene ('Dances with Wolves', 'The Green Mile') and Gil Birmingham ('The Lone Ranger', The 'Twilight' Saga) as a kindly policeman and the murdered girl's father, respectively.
The action in the film is muscular and aggressive, finding dynamic and surprising ways to showcase intimate battle sequences (as well as some creative ways of getting into them).
Another major stumbling block for 'Wind River', when inevitably compared to the other films in Sheridan's oeuvre, is that it isn't directed by a visual stylist. Cinematographer Ben Richardson is no Roger Deakins, and Sheridan is certainly no Denis Villeneuve or David Mackenzie. Previously, he has cited Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann as influences for what he calls "naturalistic genre films". Unfortunately, rather than evoking these directors or even prestige snow-bound thrillers like 'A Simple Plan' or 'Fargo', this film feels like nothing more than a chilly, overlong episode of Netflix's TV crime drama 'Longmire', which also deals with criminal activities on Indian reservations.
What 'Wind River' does have going for it is its final half-hour. A tense Mexican stand-off leads to a harrowing flashback sequence and a gonzo climactic gun battle that caused the audience in my cinema to gasp at its explosive violence. The action in the film is muscular and aggressive, finding dynamic and surprising ways to showcase intimate battle sequences (as well as some creative ways of getting into them). Along with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' score for the film, the gunfights are a highlight of 'Wind River'; it seems as though Sheridan was saving up all his creativity for the action.
Directorial skills aside, Sheridan should really consider moving past his obsession with terse masculinity and writing a film where his female characters aren't quivering jelly, hapless victims or bitter exes.
'Outbreak Generation' screened before 'Wind River' on Wednesday 14 June 2017 at the State Theatre, Sydney.
Directed by Brooke Goldfinch , 'Outbreak Generation' is an apocalyptic short film that sees Annie (Genevieve Hegney) unexpectedly finding herself as the sole carer of her eight-year-old nephew (Oscar Wright) when a mind-altering virus ravages Sydney. Is Annie suffering the hallucinatory symptoms of TSD, or can the mysterious white horse she sees in the middle of the road be explained rationally?
'Outbreak Generation' is a nicely shot mood piece which could have benefited from a punchier conclusion, but Goldfinch does a great job in establishing Annie's nightmarish world in its brief 13-minute running-time.