Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River open with the title card: “This is based on actual events.” A clunky rewording of the typical “inspired by a true story” framing, the cut to a frigid Wyoming landscape draws parallels to the Coen Brothers classic Fargo. Sheridan’s directorial debut is much too dour an affair to exactly warrant the affair, but the pragmatic reprise points forebodingly to the notion that no matter how factually grounded Sheridan’s modern western may be, Wind River is built on a fundamentally false vision of America.
Focusing around the death of a woman on the eponymous reservation, Sheridan decides to channel the investigation through that of a wild animal hunter (queue the question, aren’t *people* just animals, etc), divorced and still-grieving for a brutally murdered daughter. Played by Jeremy Renner, the hunter is enlisted by Elizabeth Olsen’s fish-out-of-water narrative non-entity of an FBI agent.
Once again, Renner fails to do anything but gruffly smirk for the majority of a runtime, but I really admire and relate to his valiant fight against being likeable, no matter the cost. Olsen continues to emerge further with each role as an actress of incredible skill and range, the sort whose talent can’t be edited out of a work; Yet the question of her character’s role in the film hangs unsteadily throughout. Sheridan’s film flirts with murder mystery for the first half before becoming the sort of sober prestige drama that’s typically an ill fit for the genre. Initially seeming to strike the four-way highway character mapping of Sicario, which was a beautiful, brutalizing film in its own right, the story’s focus on the Southern cowgirl FBI agent – this categorization is loose and reductive, but only because of Olsen’s ability to make underplayed acting feel organic and essentially Americana – tips towards romance in a thuddingly scripted moment cocooned in the film’s runtime.
Wind River features Sheridan’s weakest script to date. Sicario’s tightness and borderline indulgent nihilism bended to serve Denis Villeneuve’s camera as innuendo for the violence of gender specifically because of the ways Sheridan departed from the typical Western tropes, while the didactic bipartisan anti-capitalism (which exists only in grand entertainment, bless the lord it exists somewhere) of Hell or High Water cascaded in the exact opposite direction, towards a delicious sort of hyper-literalism. Wind River sits awkwardly between the two, alternating between moments of haunting iconographies, such as when Renner lays alone beside Natalie’s body in the snow, and the odd pseudo-realism of the film’s sole, floundering flashback.
Sheridan’s treatment of Native Americans and women are respectful, but Sheridan only offers a Western that is contemporary, not modern. The racism is foregrounded as a genre-based, congruous journey through grief for Renner’s cowboy, but the notion of obscuring these fears within a traditionally reactionary genre feels like a misguided adjustment. The cowboy’s journey has always been one of solitude, and the Native Americans operated as a distraction. By making their struggle the rhyming sub-plot to a generic and clunky formed melodrama, this is Sheridan’s first film that fails as a Western, though it is explicitly the closest in form.
The failure is only compounded by the immediate, startling realization that Sheridan cannot direct for the life of him (and this film is directed within an inch of its life). His shots have no sense of composition, with each scenes pacing awkward, flittering between morose and suspenseful. It is a rough, visually amateurish film. Tonally, Sheridan nicely conjures thudding exposition with that same forward momentum. The film has no sense of altitude or climate, only capturing the paradoxically isolated and claustrophobic landscape of the Pacific Northwest in wickedly rousing, sparse snowmobile treks through the police district’s jurisdiction.
Exemplary of the film’s weirdly auteurist directorial deficiency is the central rape scene. It is not tantalizing, nor disrespectful, nor soft, but it is blunt to the point of surrealism, unfocused on trauma or even the sequence of events taking place. The scene feels non-committal and dazed, and it is so thoroughly bizarre in its ineptitude – make no mistake, the scene is a failure – that it has hovered for weeks, like a swarm of gnats on a bike ride in August.
I have been hesitant to label Sheridan as a major talent, and despite that, I believe this to be a weak film, it’s worth probing further as to why he’s become so successful. Perhaps it’s the undersaturated Western genre. Or rather, the half-hearted, righteous (but still familiar and regressive) vision of America finds half a foothold in audience’s chest, tapping into something deeper, the most innate part of patriotism; that is comfort with the guise of nihilism, a paradox that prefers to be ignored. Sheridan’s work has failed for me, despite its relative skills and charms, because it works against a consideration of a country in a position of such massive upheaval, replaced with practically weird “situation devices” as plots, like propagandic LARP-ing for those in willful disregard for the crisis and duty of a modern U.S. Citizen.