Actor Taylor Sheridan certainly came bolting out of the gate as a screenwriter, with his scripts for 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water displaying a firm grasp of pulp storytelling dynamics and an eagerness to explore the darker aspects of the human condition. (That both films had terrific directors in charge, with Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie respectively, definitely didn’t hurt.)
Wind River, Sheridan’s first attempt at directing one of his own scripts, is a similarly tough, intelligently elevated B-movie, bolstered by unexpectedly deft novelistic touches and an exceptional, contents-under-pressure lead performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s got a kick.
Beginning with a scarily enigmatic midnight chase, the plot follows a Wyoming wildlife officer (Renner) tasked with hunting predatory animals through the frozen high lonesomes. (Viewers with a fondness for wolves should be prepared to avert their eyes early on.) After discovering the corpse of a young Native American woman in the mountains, he teams with an inexperienced FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to track down the killer—and as their path leads them to the local reservation, he must deal with his own ties to the deceased.
As his previous screenplays have indicated, Sheridan has a real gift for the tired wiseassery of lawmen, and his streak continues here, with the byplay between jaded professionals giving spark even to routine procedural scenes. (Graham Greene, as the reservation’s deadpanning sheriff, not only steals every scene he’s in, but possibly those of whatever is playing next door in the multiplex, too.) If Sheridan proves to be a little more indulgent toward moments of tough guys waxing poetic than the directors of his previous work, at least the extra words earn their keep.
The cast all happily proves to be on the same wavelength as their director, thanks to Olsen’s mixture of fierce determination and the growing realization that she’s out of her element, a brief but vivid turn by Jon Bernthal as a person of interest, and especially Gil Birmingham, who was fantastic as Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water and here provides a haunting few minutes as the father of the victim.
Above all, though, there’s Renner, a fine actor who nobody seemed to know exactly what to do with after the out-of-nowhere triumph of The Hurt Locker. In Wind River, however, he and his material dovetail beautifully, creating an intensely physical performance with a mounting sadness just barely visible in his eyes. Throughout, he conveys the increasing rigors of being the strong, largely taciturn type. His silences speak volumes.
That demeanor sets the tone for the entire film. At a time when needless plot twists fall like rain, one of the most impressive aspects of Wind River is just how uncomplicated it is, moving from startling setup to gun-studded resolution without needless digressions or romantic complications to gum up the works. The one time Sheridan struts his stuff, during a pivotal third act flashback, more than justifies the indulgence, and makes you eager to see just what he’ll do next. (His current project apparently involves a Greek god reincarnated as a modern soldier trying to save the world, which, you know, could go a lot of different ways.)
For now, though, his decision to try out the director’s chair has resulted in an extremely solid movie—one that provides all the virtues of a good, grim story well told, while also trusting the audience to fill in the intentional emotional blanks. In Sheridan’s growing body of work, nobody gets off easy.