Wind River is a gritty directorial debut that could have used a stronger hand

Exchanging the delirious heat for the mythic snow does little to dull the quickly notable Taylor Sheridan brand of crime story. Through Hell or High Water and Sicario, Sheridan has become famous for his stories of the frontier and how quickly that frontier destroys human decency, his stories of procedure and his stories of the places that people live away from most eyes.

Wind River trades on all of that, though this time there is no filter between Sheridan’s writing and the film we see on screen. This is Sheridan’s directorial debut, which may not necessarily be to the film’s benefit. Removed from Denis Villeneuve’s haunting precision or the quiet desperation that David Mackenzie brought, Sheridan’s shaky directorial foundation finds Wind River falling far shorter than its predecessors.

Set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, the story starts with the body of Natalie (Kelsey Chow) found barefoot in the snow by US Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought on to investigate, as the elements and the violence and despair visited on the Reservation by the elements and by the sins of America begin to consume the investigation.

Much of what has worked about Sheridan’s writing in the past is still fantastic here. The sense of environment is immaculate, the specific nuances of Wyoming feel as real and tangible as his Texas does. Isolated and lonely but something beautiful in the snow and in the pain. It’s the frontier, but one both mythical and rare. The movie’s compassion to the Native Americans is absolutely admirable, if a little clumsy.

His sense of procedure is also still incredibly intact, and playing even more of a role here. Sheridan’s interest is clear without the filter of other director’s interests. It contributes to that tangibility, a well-researched run through what form these things may actually take. Concerns about what the cause of death is listed as, getting the right back up, whose jurisdiction a given area is sounds boring, but Sheridan has a penchant for pulling the emotion and tension out of these decisions.

And whether it’s his work or just good casting, Wind River pulls strong performances out of just about everyone. Renner and Olsen have strong duo chemistry and each managed to play big and emotional without ever losing the gritty thread of the story. Most of the supporting cast are good to “does their job” but real MVP work is done by Gil Birmingham, the Native actor who plays the father of the murdered girl. Birmingham’s performance is heartbreaking at every step and between this and his scene-stealing in Hell or High Water, one wonders why Hollywood doesn’t seek to snap him up.

One also wonders if perhaps Wind River chose the wrong protagonist.

Where Wind River really begins to fall down on the weakness of a first time director. As strong as Sheridan’s writing is, Villeneuve and Mackenize’s sensibilities both provided a specific filter. Both are excessively visual directors in the subtlest ways, letting movements speak for monologues and moments speak for scenes.

Sheridan’s visual eye simply isn’t as strong. His vistas feel a little less grand, his tense handheld close-ups feel more shaky than chaotic. His action staging often has great surprise, but rarely manages the sustained tension of something like Sicaro‘s border crossing.

He also just isn’t great at making the story connections yet. His raw material is strong, but he can’t bring it coherently together. His thematics rarely feel connected (there’s a thread about Cory and Martin [Gil Birmingham] and their parallel children that is brought up and dropped from time to time). There’s also a lot of clunk that feels like material that would be trimmed by more experienced hands. Much of Wind River is told in monologue and has its ideas stated openly.

Wind River is still a cut-above crime film and perhaps it seems unfair to compare it so heavily to its predecessors. But when your material is so often shaped so expertly, it seems right to note when the potential is lost.

Grade: B-