It’s a pretty great experience when you come across a new creative voice that seems to gel so well with your own tastes. And that’s what’s been going on with Taylor Sheridan. The man has been on a serious roll, becoming a significant force in two of the best movies in the last two years. As with most people I first heard about Sheridan when he wrote 2015’s amazing Sicario and knew that something special was happening. Sicario is an amazing movie, and one unlike anything else I’d ever seen. But then he followed it up with 2016’s Hell or High Water which while maybe not quite as mind-blowing as Sicario, was still one of last year’s best films. And this year we’re getting something a little different from Sheridan. Because the film he’s created for us for 2017 is not only written by him, but directed as well. And it’s great. He’s trading in Texas for Wyoming, but he’s still crafted a truly terrific crime thriller, delivering one of my favorite films of the year so far. Because how could I not love a weird frontier noir set on an American Indian Reservation?
Wind River tells the story of a man named Corey Lambert, a Fish and Wildlife agent who is tasked with hunting animals that are killing cattle. But when he gets a call to find a mountain lion that’s been seen on the Wind River Indian Reservation, everything goes wrong. Because while looking for the lion he comes across the body of a girl from the reservation, Natalie Hanson. He gets the Reservation sheriff involved, and it quickly becomes evident that they’re going to have to call the FBI for help. So, sending a rookie agent who just happened to be closest to Wyoming named Jane Banner, the investigation begins. Jane is quickly out of her depth, not sure how to handle an investigation in such a foreign environment for her, but she latches onto Corey, and asks him to help. He agrees, but for bigger reasons that Jane realizes. Because it turns out that Corey’s daughter, and Natalie’s best friend, died mysteriously on the reservation a couple of years ago, and he never got any closure with the case. It destroyed his marriage, and almost destroyed his life, so now he’s going to do everything he can to help find Natalie’s murderer, and help bring some solace to her father Martin, so he doesn’t have to live his life never knowing what happened to her like Corey did.
Corey, Jane, and Sheriff Ben then begin investigating the murder, heading all around the Wind River Reservation in the hopes of finding some answers. It appears that Natalie died from exposure, when her lungs froze in the below-zero temperature, so it seems like she had to have come from somewhere near where they found her body. They first check a house that some local creeps have been living in, including Natalie’s older brother, but after an altercation it becomes clear they weren’t involved. But Natalie’s brother does confirm that she was dating a white guy, who was working at a nearby oil rig. This is made rather more complicated though when they also come across the body of a man named Matt Rayburn, who appears to have been Natalie’s boyfriend. It does point them in the direction of the oil rig though, which is closed for the winter but does have year-round security, which Matt was one of. Corey heads off to deal with the mountain lion he’s been tracking since the beginning of the story while Jane, Sheriff Ben, and some Wyoming deputies head to the rig to investigate Ben’s trailer. But when they get there they immediately find the other security guards hostile, which is when we learn what really happened. Ben and Natalie had been in a relationship, and were planning on leaving Wyoming to start a life together, when the other guards arrived back from a night out partying, drunk and itching for a fight. They end up harassing Ben and Natalie, and things devolved into a huge fight, where Ben is accidentally killed, and Natalie is raped. She managed to escape them, and flee into the night, eventually dying in the snowy woods. And because these guards are responsible for two deaths, they decide to cover things up by attacking Jane, Ben, and the other deputies, killing everyone but Jane. Luckily Corey has arrived, and he manages to take down all of the guards, saving Jane and bringing some amount of vengeance for Natalie.
This film grabs you from the first moment, and doesn’t let go for the entire runtime. It’s a damn near perfect film, throwing you into a world that almost completely alien to me, and getting me instantly invested and drawn in. I really don’t know much about the world of American Indian Reservations, but between stories like this and the terrific Vertigo comic Scalped from Jason Aaron and RM Guera, they certainly seem like fascinating places, and rife with dramatic potential. Sheridan has made his name writing absolutely tremendous film set primarily in Texas that are basically structured like modern day Westerns, and this film takes a similar outlook but brings it to the frozen forests and peaks of Wyoming. It’s a beautifully shot film that shows the reservation for all of its beauty and squalor, putting us firmly in this world. And the acting is terrific across the board. We’ve already learned from some of the Marvel movies that Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson have great chemistry together, but this film cements that, giving us two great protagonists that were fully realized, and grew a very honest and believable relationship where they depended on each other.
Because Renner’s Corey is not doing well in this film. I’m a little shocked that we never learned what actually happened to his daughter, because that seems to be the sort of Hollywood writing that you would expect from a film, wrapping everything up in a nice little bow. But this movie doesn’t do that. Because this isn’t about Corey finding solace from the death of his daughter. It’s about him finding solace for a friend who is going through a similar experience. There’s a scene in the film when the terrific Gil Birmingham, playing the grieving father, has a breakdown on his porch, realizing that Corey is the only person who knows what he’s going through. And Corey doesn’t mince words. He tells him that he’s broken, and he’s never not going to be broken. The loss of a child is not something that we’re meant to easily repair ourselves from. He tells Martin that this is a pain that’s going to be with him for the rest of his life, but if he allows himself to heal as much as he possibly can, he’ll be able to move on with his life eventually. Corey does this whole thing to help Martin with that process, to give him the slightest bit of aid in moving on from the death of his daughter, hoping that if he can at least remove the mystery surrounding Natalie’s death than his friend can heal easier. We don’t know if he will heal easier, but it’s a start.
Wind River was written and directed by Taylor Sheridan and released by The Weinstein Company, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk