“Don’t steer away from the pain”
After watching his first two spec scripts find homes with established directors—Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie bringing those words to life beautifully in neo-westerns Sicario and Hell or High Water respectively—actor turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan finally steps behind the camera with his latest Wind River. While not as complex as far as scope goes (locale and action), it definitely retains his penchant for subtle, twisty mysteries that reveal themselves only when absolutely necessary. Sheridan isn’t one to pull the wool over his audience’s eyes as much as ensure we know his characters and understand their motivations. He presents authentic evolutionary paths that compel each forward by his/her own volition rather than their creator’s. It’s almost as though he creates the scenario and lets them act accordingly.
One couldn’t therefore be faulted for believing he trades in cliché, but they’re wrong. Sheridan doesn’t build from familiar tropes as much as utilize them in unfamiliar or—at the very least—inconspicuous ways. You don’t have to look further than the catalyst of Wind River‘s criminal investigation being a young woman dead in the snowy sub-zero mountain terrain of a Wyoming Indian Reservation. Where a less savvy writer would draw her as daughter or wife of his/her protagonist, Sheridan minimizes physical connection by instead focusing on the more potent and relevant thematic one. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) does know Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), but he knows these dire circumstances better. Her death conjures memories; his trajectory forward simultaneously about her and his own daughter lost three years prior.
The same goes for casting Lambert’s government tracker—he’s a US Fish and Wildlife Service hunter who often works on his ex-wife’s (Julia Jones‘ Wilma) parents’ reservation—as a white actor. While on the surface this appears to be a case of writing a white savior—an assumption exacerbated by the FBI agent sent to help being Elizabeth Olsen‘s Jane Banner—Sheridan takes pains to explain the politics of the tragic situation in which they’ve become party. Tribal police cannot arrest non-tribal assailants, their resources are non-existent, and America at-large can’t care less. The body showing signs of rape therefore necessitates an outsider and the easiest way to paint mistrust while not sacrificing plot progression is to provide her a “guide” positioned with a foot in both worlds.
That’s not to say this character couldn’t have been a younger Native American actor who isn’t as set in ways as Sheriff Ben (Graham Greene) or Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham)—look at Aaron Pedersen in Mystery Road and Goldstone as an indigenous detective working with and against white folk—just that the narrative reasoning is sound. It helps too that neither Lambert nor Banner are “heroes” doing anything more than their job description. His tracking prowess and knowledge of the land are priceless advantages given that he isn’t a law enforcement officer and her passion to remain when many would simply let the case remain unsolved like countless missing persons cases on reservation land is admirable, but their drive stems from human empathy rather than ego.
All of Sheridan’s work contains characters like this in order for us to invest in the story without overt manipulation. He lets those without inexperience learn from those with it as well as allowing those with the capacity to change to do so. We don’t know more about anyone than we need and therefore aren’t coerced into making assumptions when letting everything unfold in its own time is enjoyment enough. We become the outsider (Olsen here much like Emily Blunt in Sicario) to experience a life we’re quick to dismiss as a one-dimensional talking point. Sheridan wants us to feel the sense of abandonment and inferiority these natives hold as a part of their identity because it’s their drive to keep going—to survive—regardless that inspires.
So we align ourselves with Lambert not as white savior, but someone who has embraced this life for his family and himself. He’s a friend (as evidenced by his relationship with Martin) and trusted equal (him being the go-to hunter to take out predators stalking the residents and their livestock). The one misstep in his construction comes from a constant tone of patronization when dealing with Jane—something that might very well be a product of Renner’s performance and Sheridan’s directing of it as “paternal” than the dialogue itself. Thankfully he’s also drawn as very methodical and pragmatic, his desire to show those going in the wrong direction why it’s wrong more to teach than demean. He hunts Natalie’s killer like a lion, tracking evidence instead of psychology.
And while this methodical hunt is the plot’s main thrust, Sheridan injects the necessary psychology anyway—the film’s greatest strength. He lets there be native stoicism with outsiders, but also heartfelt tears with their own. He allows a strain of vulnerability to influence characters that are often stereotypically rigid like cowboys (Lambert) and blue-collar contractors (Jon Bernthal‘s Matt), letting their instincts to fight come from a place of love rather than rage. Jane is also given complexity to know she’s both out of her depth and ready to sink or swim regardless. Tensions ultimately rise when their trail leads towards a destination that has as much potential to destroy them as it does provide answers, the resulting burst of violence uncompromising enough to allow for its obvious survivors.
So just like Hell or High Water dealt with its bank robberies and their perpetrators’ righteous motivations while also showcasing a world ravaged by poverty and forgotten by time, Wind River possesses more than meets the eye too. The drama to finding Natalie’s killer invests us so Sheridan can expose exactly what it’s like to live under the cruelty of a nation that stole everything you were before subsequently ensuring your reclamation of it was nearly impossible. We witness the way in which tragedies devastate and yet become accepted as an unavoidably unfortunate way of life decades of turmoil cemented. When your hands are tied from enacting the justice you so deserve, you fight for every victory anyway because it only takes one to inspire another generation’s pride.
 Elizabeth Olsen stars in Wind River Photo: Fred Hayes © 2017 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved
 Hugh Dillon, Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene star in Wind River
Fred Hayes/The Weinstein Company © 2017 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved
 Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham star in WIND RIVER
Fred Hayes © 2017 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved