The anticipated directorial debut of writer Taylor Sheridan – fresh off of the ice-cold hot-iron Sicario and the wonderfully arid, sand-blasted Hell or High Water – is simultaneously inspired and perfunctory, trenchant and essentially irrelevant. I would never call its engagement with issues of misogyny and Native American issues fraudulent or unearned – the film’s heart and mind are headed in the right direction – but for a film about race, its treatment is disappointingly cosmetic. The surfaces shimmer with sturdy, appreciably classical filmmaking smarts, but they never disturb or inspire. Much as I appreciate the film’s commitment to navigating the tangled web of US governmental jurisdiction – and concocting a thriller out of no less a subject than jurisdictional boundary disputes – Wind River settles for even-keeled watchability rather than truly chilling to the bone, or stoking a self-propagating frenzy like Sheridan’s other films.
Perhaps surprisingly, Wind River’s relative competency – its lack of real elan – is not the fruit of any visual superfluousness on Sheridan’s part. He’s no formal genius, nor even a particularly sparkling stylist, but an ounce or two of the venom he sucked up working with Denis Villeneuve and David MacKenzie coarse through this film’s bones. Brandishing no-frills, taciturn filmmaking, I wouldn’t put it up to bear with Sam Fuller or Nicholas Ray, but it could be a solid Clint Eastwood circa turn of the century. At his best, Sheridan threads a fine line, never over-speaking and relying on his writerly talents as crutch nor underlining the themes with boldface but broad visual signifiers that showily over-state the film’s claims about modern-day America.
No, the directing is sturdy if not stupendous, which could be said of the film altogether. The real surprise is that Wind River, absent the accentuating-poetics of a truly great director, reveals the inherent conservatism of Sheridan as a screenwriter, a conservatism less reflected in any particular political opinion than a more foundational assumption about the moral structure of the world. At Wind River’s heart is a question of the long-arm of the government and the question of government’s plasticity, whether it can be spread over other regional, cultural, or tribal affiliations and conflicts and afford those peoples a sense of contingency and specificity that doesn’t flatten all players into a homogenizing stupor. Sheridan’s pathway to this question is the rape and murder of a Native American girl in rural, wintry Wyoming discovered by tracker/hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), whose ex-wife is also Native American and whose daughter was murdered and raped in similar fashion years before. Because the body is found on federal jurisdiction, greenhorn recruit Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in, although initially she is as palpably disinclined to question the mystery as she is determined and competent enough to arrive at any solution she can.
From there, well, Wind River is satisfied with generally functioning as a narrative mechanism rather than a truly thoughtful or introspective enigma about past tragedy and future possibility. Peeking out from the rafters is a nice little tone poem and an occasionally vivid snapshot of a location that – as with nearly all Americana cinema – doubles as a state of mind, but the film isn’t quite coarse enough to discharge any poetry out of its formal competence, nor to locate any wrinkles in its thematic tapestry. The climax, for instance, is shot with a brutal efficiency but encumbered by writing that both caricaturizes its antagonists – turning them not into reflections of a troubled, misogynist system but lone anomalies – and places undue thematic import on Renner’s character who suddenly transforms into a mouthpiece for the screenplay. By its conclusion, Wind River seems less interested in interrogating questions of Native Americans’ marginalized but foundational place in US history, or how various levels of government interact with these populations, than in using this subject matter as an accessory, an accoutrement, to its more trivial thriller mechanics. And even as a thrill, the film is merely solid. Sure, there’s a suspenseful pepper spray encounter that momentarily raises the pulse, but Sicario was a more truly blinding sensorium, and Hell or High Water, while more conventional than that, also more singularly capable of opening your eyes.
It is my suspicion, though, that Wind River isn’t actually interested in opening any eyes, in animating any desires that wouldn’t have been readily apparent in 1950. While Hell or High Water was ostensibly populist, it also limned its plea for the everyman with an essentially traditional vision of working-class white males as respectable, quietly cautious, world-weary enigmas who are also emblems of an essentially unquestioned morality structure predicated on the value of rootless men rooting themselves in locations they alone are saviors of and, more importantly, totems to. They alone become capable of embodying all the eccentricities of locations that become inseparable from their individualistic, masculine facades. Facades Sheridan’s films complicate only in service of preserving; men like Cory Lambert are sensitive, wounded birds, and they have “flaws”, but only to humanize them in service of elevating them as beacons to the correct idiom of humanity, a vernacular exclusively available in these films to white men.
And, sometimes, to women like Jane who aspire to this insular, self-reliant competency and who are, in some sense, even more problematic stereotypes than genuine damsels in distress. When the films inevitably diminish their agency so they can be abetted by men like Cory, it seems more like a fundamental claim about all women, even those who try to adopt a rugged exterior but who are, apparently, brittle to the core. Wind River trades in stereotypes and clichés like these, but its simultaneous disdain for and adherence to these archetypes is somewhat offensive, like the film genuinely believes it is filling in bodies with the life-blood of three-dimensionality when, in reality, it’s sketching in iconographic obelisks to classical, uncomplicated value structures.
Even Lambert’s Native American family is less a wrinkle in this formula than its own form of caricature, that of a white man who straddles both sides of a divide and who, singularly and uniquely, navigates various boundaries in a way that the film suggests other non-white, non-male figures cannot. If his film critiques – if, I write – governmental marginalization of non-white people, it is only to counterpoint the government as a big bad wolf to the salt-of-the-earth loner, the somber white individual who sees through the government’s disinterest. In this manner, Sheridan dresses up, and disguises, old-school truisms (that aren’t really true) in an unearned countenance of poetry. Yes, he’s a solid director, but if Wind River proves anything, it apparently takes a truly great one to heat tired pap into genuinely revelatory pulp, or to chill it into a genuinely dialectical film, one that is not merely animated but haunted by its worldview and general tone.