FOLLOWING a relatively unremarkable career as an actor in television series such as Walker, Texas Ranger, Veronica Mars, and (slightly more notably) Sons of Anarchy, Taylor Sheridan made the transition to screenwriting and a name for himself as a chronicler of crime in the midst of dying Americana.
Sheridan’s intelligent, lyrical and brutal screenplay for 2015’s Sicario followed drug-cartel crime along the Mexican-American border, hailed as much for its script as for Denis Villeneuve’s direction.
Last year’s Hell or High Water, directed by David McKenzie, showed clearer signs of what’s evidently become Sheridan’s signature style and thematic fixation; the slowly dying American dream, manifested in shuttered businesses and vast western expanses of moral grey area.
Hell or High Water was applauded for revitalising and modernising the western genre, resting comfortably at the top of many critics’ yearly lists (including this one).
With his directorial debut, Wind River (Cert 16, 107 mins), Sheridan continues to play with those themes. However, for the characters of this harrowing thriller, the American dream was never a possibility to begin with, denied them by the people that dreamt it up.
Taking place on a Native American reservation on the plains and hills of snowy Wyoming, Wind River begins ominously, as a young girl runs for her life – and dies – in the cold of night.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is the reservation wildlife officer who discovers the body. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought in to investigate and when the autopsy reveals that the girl was raped, she teams up with Lambert to track down those responsible.
Wind River is a lean, mean and expertly crafted thriller – a commendable job for Sheridan’s first directorial effort. The storytelling here is economic; often meditative but never painfully so.
Despite the foggy nature of the crime, this is a story driven by emotion, rather than mystery.
Wind River isn’t fraught with twists and turns – just the sudden, unsettling and graphic realisation of inhumanity and deep-rooted inequality.
As with Hell or High Water, the emphasis on family ties leaves space for plenty of melodrama; Sheridan certainly has a penchant for the overtly-tragic and doesn’t shy away from a helping of good old, American-style cheese.
However, it’s never long before reality rears its ugly head – in Sheridan’s America, light only ever serves to illuminate the darkness, to draw it out and give the bad prominence over the good.
The vast expanses of white snow that dominate Wind River’s aesthetic may give the film a light, almost heavenly quality, but against that angelic canvass, bloodstains and dirt have nowhere to hide.
Sheridan successfully juxtaposes darkness and light, the bad and the good, in everything from storytelling to style, to create another land of moral grey area.
The events unfold in a world not outside the word of law, but one largely forgotten by wider society, where crime can go unchecked, unpunished and where violence can flourish.
The ultimate sadness here, then, is not in the tragic story we’re told, but the realistic depiction of a culture left by the wayside.
Unfortunately, Wind River’s lead characters, played by Renner and Olsen, are the story’s least interesting, and are less developed than the anti-heroes of Hell or High Water.
With a little more subtlety of message and a little more time spent developing these leads, Wind River would be a real winner. Still, there’s plenty here to have us leave the cinema both enthralled, angered and anticipating what Sheridan gives us next..