31 Days, 31 Movies 12/10: Wind River

It’s amazing how little I’ve heard about Wind River.  With Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen starring I would have assumed more people would have been talking about it, especially with how good it is.  Taylor Sheridan who is coming off writing two of the best movies of the last few years, Hell or High Water and Sicario makes his directing debut in Wind River (we don’t talk about Vile) and his immediate success behind the camera is a pleasant surprise.  It is clear Sheridan learned a lot from working with Denis Villeneuve and David McKenzie because he builds the slow smoldering tension in Wind River in the same way as Sicario and Hell or High Water.

Wind River starts off feeling like any of the plethora of dead girl TV shows and movies that have come in years past.  Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), working as a hunter for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, comes across the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille) while tracking a family of mountain lions.  The small Arapaho reservation does not have the police for to handle a homicide so they call in FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen).  All-in-all a fairly standard set up, beautiful white movie stars come to small town America–or often England–to solve the brutal murder of a pretty young girl.  However, Wind River manages to shed many of the cliches on the back of some excellent writing and performances not to mention that Sheridan treats the native people with surprising care and forethought in the film.

Sheridan has an eye for the cold beauty of the scenery that he is shooting; it is no exaggeration to say that I would have gladly watched Renner trudge through the thick white snow in wide shot for hours.  He also has an knack for action, while most of the meat of the movie happens in quiet conversation and silent spectacle there are bursts of intense action in Wind River that Taylor Sheridan directs excellently.  But, Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner are movie stars if nothing else and much like Villeneuve in Sicario, Sheridan knows when to get out of the way of his stars.  Olsen and Renner have tangible on-screen chemistry and one of the weirder side effects of watching Wind River is I kind of just want more Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye scenes now.  Aside from the film’s two main stars the supporting cast, filled with familiar faces, does an excellent job; Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham are definitely the standouts in the supporting cast but Martin Sensmeier, James Jordan, Kelsey Asbille, and Jon Bernthal deliver some pretty incredible scenes in the few minutes they get on screen.

No two-hour movie is capable of taking on the centuries of mistreatment that has been exacted upon the Native American people and many that set out to tell a story of the Native people end up coming off tone deaf in the face of history (looking at you Dances With Wolves).  But in this case the cries of white savior or glorifying savagery or belittling its subject that I have seen from some critics feel misplaced.  Would it have been better to see Renner or Olsen’s role played by a Native Person–of course– but without those two names I don’t see how a freshman director gets this movie made and Wind River does a better job than most at telling the story of the people it set out to.

Conclusion:

Wind River tells a familiar and well trodden story.  Taylor Sheridan’s writing is as sharp as always and he shines as an inexperienced director.  The cast as a whole impresses in this character-driven film but the lead performances of Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are stand outs.

Rating: 78

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