‘Wind River’ Is A Compelling Thriller Wrapped Around An Ugly Revenge Fantasy

Wind River, Taylor Sheridan’s third filmed screenplay and second film as a director, seems to crystallize the notion that he’s a talented storyteller but not exactly a deep thinker. Not every story needs to be the product of deep thinking, of course, and in the past it’s even worked to Sheridan’s advantage, particularly in Hell Or High Water (directed by David MacKenzie), a straight-ahead bank robbing thriller that feels almost specifically designed to make you slap your knee and opine about why “No one else makes ’em like this anymore.”

Similarly, Sicario works as long as you don’t think about it too hard (probably because Denis Villenueve shoots action so well that not much else even matters). But in Wind River, Sheridan’s first film as both writer and director (he previously directed the 2011 horror film Vile), his meatheadedness becomes even more of a liability. It’s a movie I wholeheartedly enjoyed for about the first two thirds and then spent the last third wondering if the director should see a shrink.

Wind River is pretty fantastic when it’s a murder mystery and kind of gross when it’s a revenge movie. Like our collective fascination with the sociopath, the revenge movie is a genre that seems to betray more psychological ugliness the more times you see it, getting less and less enjoyable in the process. That’s especially true when a screenwriter seems to be dreaming up worse and worse things for a bad guy to do just so it will feel that much more cathartic when said bad guy gets murdered gruesomely himself. How many people does Ramsay Snow have to rape or castrate for us to enjoy him getting torn apart by wild dogs? And for some reason, revenge feels much grosser when it’s treated with grave seriousness, like in Prisoners, rather than openly played for genre thrills, like in John Wick or Kill Bill. Don’t frown at me while you’re getting your rocks off. You’re not fooling anyone.

In Wind River, Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a gruff but sage Wyoming man who kills animals for a living (in his capacity as a fish and wildlife officer tasked with tracking down rogue wolves and outlaw mountain lions). One blustery day he finds the body of a young girl out in the snow deep in the Wind River Indian reservation where she’s been raped and left for dead. The FBI then calls in dew-faced freshington Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), the closest available agent, who doesn’t even have a winter coat when she arrives from Las Vegas.

Jane Banner (Christ, that name) is one fish way out of water, and she clearly needs Snowplow Corey to teach her the ways of the red man, which he apparently knows on account of his ex-wife and son are Arapaho. (He has STK, sexually transmitted knowledge.) In any case, it’s similar to Insomnia, where in order to solve a terrible crime, the outsider FBI agent has to learn how things work down on the rez.

They team up with the tribal sheriff, played by Graham Greene (always nice when he shows up), and when they arrive to question the victim’s parents, Banner gets a crash course in empathy for grieving victims (which honestly doesn’t seem like something you’d need to be on a reservation to learn). Meanwhile, Lambert takes the grieving father aside to deliver the first of many knowing monologues about the nature of grief. He’s not only the film’s best cop, tracker, and wolf killer, you see, he’s also the town psychiatrist. What a guy, what a guy. But it turns out that Lambert has some personal experience with the grieving process, and if you’ve seen Taylor Sheridan’s last three movies, you know that Sheridan has a penchant for — some might say an obsession with — furious, manly grief (cinema’s favorite emotion?). Renner is much like Benicio Del Toro in Sicario, where tragic backstory is his Popeye spinach.

Questionable decision-making aside (why is the town’s best Indian a white guy?) it’s a classic murder mystery spiced with Wyoming exotica — which Sheridan has a true talent for boiling down into a single line of dialogue. Examples: “This isn’t the land of back up, it’s the land of you’re on your own,” or “We have to drive 50 miles to go five, welcome to Wyoming.”

It’s not a reinvention of the form, but when you combine expansive cinematography, a strong ensemble cast, and a murder mystery, you get a pretty compelling movie. Then, just when things are starting heat up, the movie takes a weird turn out of the present tense and into flashback, showing us a graphic crime that seems transparently intended to whet our appetite for an equally graphic retribution. Now look, Wind River is far from the first movie to betray an Old Testament-esque retributive sensibility. It’s more the fact that Wind River tries to paper over its horny-for-gun-violence sentiment with the pretense of realism that makes it kind of icky. (It even begins with a “true story” disclaimer; please cite your sources next time.) To be fair, if you can get past that it’s a solid watch, and Sheridan has a real talent for shooting balls-to-the-wall action, if you don’t think about the head-up-his-ass narrative choices.

Sheridan seems to want credit for being sympathetic to Native people. (It even ends with a statistic revealting that no one knows how many Native women go missing each year because the government doesn’t keep statistics.) But that sympathy is all tangled up with pity and condescension. Wind River‘s depiction of some of the dead-end reservation boys is strikingly similar to Sicario’s depiction of Ciudad Juarez as brimming with cartel henchmen just itching to commit suicide by cop for no apparent gain. (Do those people still have agency or nah?) Likewise, Sheridan mostly expresses his empathy for Native people in the form of one of the characters saying how much being Native sucks and Jeremy Renner giving him good advice. I’m not sure “they do crime because life sucks there” is an entirely accurate or helpful insight.

I swear I was having these thoughts even before I left the theater, when, as I was walking out, a publicist asked the guy in front of me what he thought of the film (standard procedure at press screenings). “Great second amendment movie!” the guy said. “The best way to protect a woman is to give her a gun. Shoot that motherf*cker in the head.”

I’d love to say that he missed the point, but I’m not sure he did.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.