Taylor Sheridan‘s Wind River is not only American as apple pie, but also the movie that least needed inclusion in any artistic competition.
I first saw Wind River at the Debussy theater in the Cannes Festival’s Palais. It’s the only movie I was able to see in Un Certain Regard, a category at Cannes which is usually considered a step below Official Selection. Un Certain Regard has a selection of riskier, more experimental, and often less financially successful feature films than the festival’s main event. While lacking the lightning rod for success, attached instead is artistic integrity that is hard to come by anywhere else. One last thing about the “original and different” works this category presents – it almost always rewards the “non-American.” In nineteen years of Un Certain Regard, only three American features have ever won prizes in the competition, and always minor prizes. Le “K.O.” du certain regard, for example.
This being said, it’s funny that I cut my teeth for this section on Wind River, a film that was not only American as apple pie, but also the movie that least needed inclusion in the artistic competition. Of all the films in Un Certain Regard, this year and previous, Wind River is the one you’re most likely to see. In theaters. At a competition of artistic originality, I was offered instead a profound inside take on the machinations of the film industry.
To understand the lesson of Wind River, one needs to tell the story of Taylor Sheridan, its director. Taylor Sheridan is probably the closest thing to “wunderkind” in Hollywood today. After a couple of seasons as a minor character in the FX show Sons of Anarchy, Sheridan rotated to screenwriting and conceived Sicario (2015). Hell or High Water (2016), was his second writing credit, which was nominated for a couple of Oscars last year. Neither film is hard to have heard of, and while neither screams artistry in the same vein as Iranian drama A Man of Integrity (which won Un Certain Regard this year), both were very well-received. One can then only imagine the fervor behind the scenes for the golden boy’s directorial debut, Wind River, an ostensibly true story that harbors the same themes of rugged Western nostalgia and hard-boiled violence as Sheridan’s previous creations.
The Weinstein Company stepped in. This meant that the man’s first real feature, in his third year working behind the camera, got to star Elizabeth Olson and Jeremy Renner. Olsen plays a mildly incompetent FBI agent, Jane Banner, who happened to be nearby when Colorado state police and those of a Native American reservation start having jurisdiction issues. There has been a rape and murder, deep in the frozen Rocky Mountains, of a Native American woman who appeared to have run from her captor, over five miles barefoot. It’s impossible to tell from where, though, because snow has covered her tracks.
Enter Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a snowmobiling game tracker originally just called onto the reservation to kill a mountain lion, but who stays to help save Banner from her own case. Where she knows nothing about the Native Americans, Lambert is intimately associated with the community; his ex-wife is actually from that same reservation. This makes him the ideal remedy to Olsen’s clumsy bewilderment – even more than the serenely capable Reservation police chief who accompanies the two through the entire case – right?
The mystery is potent, if only because the details of the murder are so gruesome. Helpfully, other aspects of the plot are far more obvious, such as Banner and Lambert’s budding romance, easy to spot at around the half-hour mark. The directing is shoddy, especially the camera work, which occasionally gets so shaky (off the snowmobile) that important moments of dialogue are busted by the distraction of the frame. Lighting, sound mixing, editing, all are predictably appropriate for a directorial debut. But the star power and immense budget for stunts and location give the impression of a kid taking driving lessons in a Lamborghini. Few up-and-comers get the chance to be catered to.
What put Sheridan in such a unique position, the one job he can’t fake or finesse is his writing, and he’s got quite a knack for – let me be clear – good dialogue. The hardening, gritty yet relatable candor of his characters is what allowed Sicario and Hell or High Water to function in that rare category of Thrillers that Can Think. But with great power comes great responsibility and Taylor “I’m Allergic to Exposition” Sheridan doesn’t always deliver results in the larger, more constructive aspects of the script. His avoidance of what’s cliché in individual lines often finds their way into his plot and world-building, as archaic and hackneyed tropes.
In the case of Wind River, Sheridan either reimagined or forgot the long legacy of “the white man’s burden,” a term first coined by Rudyard Kipling in 1899. Sheridan made a conscious choice to tell his story from the perspective of Lambert, a character he crafted for the (based on a) true story, who happens to be the only white man on the Native American Reservation, as well as the only one capable of getting to the bottom of the mystery. Lambert even needs to save the FBI agent, Ms. Banner, from near constant demise when they work together, despite the fact that she is the only one with training and jurisdiction to handle such a case. These dated casting calls are double jeopardy: not only does it turn the story into an update on a formulaic narrative, making the story less interesting for viewers of all types and creeds, it’s also pretty offensive to those whose inabilities are so heavily implied.
Near the end of the movie, Lambert finds his friend Martin (Gil Birmingham), the father of the murder victim, sitting in his backyard wearing traditional Native American face paint. As they sit together, Martin reveals that he doesn’t even know why he put the face paint on, or if it was done correctly, it was just something the moment of despair drove him to do. Sympathizing, the audience also doesn’t know why he put it on; it’s a part of the script so hell-bent on reminding us of this story’s Native Americanness that it forces the moment in, surely offending those who haven’t given up on conscious cinema. Similarly ham-fisted, this movie also contains a graphic rape scene that doesn’t need to be in there at all, given that its occurrence was predisposed at the film’s start. Its inclusion tells us a lot about Hollywood’s new rising star, namely that, in the pursuit of a thriller which can be unique and unexpected with its violence, sexual violence and rape is fair game.
The overall result is a movie that is truly gripping at certain points, smart but not clever, and halfway decent entertainment for the thousands of young men who will be seeing it when it arrives in American theaters this August. It has a place there, although it’s worth hoping it won’t someday.
But it dilutes the reputation of Un Certain Regard to have put Wind River in the line-up. There’s nothing “original and different” about it.