This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Genre: Thriller, Crime
Let’s take a walk through memory lane for a second. Last year, director David Mackenzie received an Oscar nomination for HELL OR HIGH WATER. A year before that, Denis Villeneuve was critically lauded for his cartel epic, SICARIO. The two films share something: screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. A writer whose made somewhat of a name for himself as a politically charged voice of viscera—a didactic genre filmmaker in auteurist clothing.
What’s fascinating about both films is that you won’t read or hear lukewarm opinions on either. It seems people either love or hate Taylor Sheridan. As a quick recap, here are my two cents: neither film is bad. While HELL OR HIGH WATER certainly grew into quite the overrated indie in the 2016 awards season, I would go as far as to call SICARIO a stellar depiction of the war on drugs, and a fantastic action film to boot. But there’s something inarguably lazy about Sheridan’s writing. It’s all so obvious. Nothing truly illuminating is said in his two most notable works; they’re just really polished, high-octane thrill rides. But as political commentaries, they’re so easy.
And still, there is a facade to Sheridan’s filmmaking that is instantly gripping: Emily Blunt tries to bust a savage cartel, Jeff Bridges hunts two bank robbers in West Texas. Say what you want about Sheridan, but the man knows how to write an action set piece. In fact, I’d say that he operates in a very unique ballpark for contemporary screenwriters. If Aaron Sorkin is at his prime when his characters wax poetic, Sheridan is best when they shut the hell up. His films drive themselves. Which is why they’re best when they aren’t trying to tell me something as derivative as, “What if the banks are actually bad guys?”
On the days where Elizabeth was too tired to act they used Mary-Kate
Which brings us to the horribly titled WIND RIVER, Sheridan’s first foray into directing the type of films he’s become so known for—he had previously directed 2011’s VILE, a critically panned horror film—and latest candidate for achievement in reckless overconfidence. Here, Jeremy Renner plays a professional tracker who finds himself in cahoots with a fish-out-of-water FBI investigator (Elizabeth Olsen) after the corpse of a young girl winds up on a Native American reservation.
I’ll be honest: you don’t get a better elevator pitch than that. WIND RIVER is so attuned to what a good detective story should be, boasting a niche setting, two professionals with varying corners of expertise, and a tragic murder case. Hell, you’ve even got a great political angle to boot, doubly so in the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. So leave it to Taylor Sheridan to completely squander a film with potential up the wazoo.
So where does WIND RIVER derail? Frankly, almost instantly. Sheridan’s hackneyed writing is plastered all over the place. Characters respond to statements that should absolutely be left rhetorical. It’s as if Sheridan forgot he was writing a film. It’s a criticism best encapsulated when Olsen asks a cop if she should call for backup in the middle of the icy tundra. Instead of letting the setting speak for itself, the cop responds, “This isn’t the land of waiting for backup. This is the land of you’re on your own.”
MFW my eyes are rolling so hard that I’ve opened a carousel
But what makes this all the more peculiar is that sometimes the writing hits hard. This mostly applies to conversations shared by the film’s Native American characters. From their dry humor to their processing of grief, there are brief moments of transcendent characterization. But any foundation that Sheridan builds for his film is almost immediately leveled whenever Renner or Olsen try to wax poetic. This comes to a boil in the film’s third act, where Renner delivers a soliloquy so contrived and irksome that I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film was reverse engineered to accommodate this piece of dialogue.
Which brings me to my most important critique: the characters. Conceptually, Olsen’s role as a Caucasian outsider is outstanding. Her environment is hostile and nobody wants to communicate with her. So why make Renner so accommodating? Hell, why make Renner white at all? It’s an inarguable fact that WIND RIVER would be a much better film if Olsen would be seeking the assistance of a Native American. It’s a perfect showcase of how whitewashing in Hollywood can extend itself to completely original properties.
And then there’s the actual mystery. To put it lightly, WIND RIVER is the most open-and-shut murder case ever put to screen. Sheridan buys himself a lot of filler with extended snowmobile montages, all of which register as his own sorry attempt to build even half the energy that Villeneuve, Deakins, and Jóhannsson conjured up in SICARIO. But when laid out on paper, WIND RIVER solves itself. Olsen doesn’t aid the investigation whatsoever, Renner does all the heavy lifting, and once the culprits are found, there’s no need to prove their guilt because WIND RIVER concludes in a cataclysmic gunfight.
This is what happens when you give all your directions through “yee-haws” of varying intensity
And here’s the kicker. WIND RIVER’s epic showdown is outstandingly well choreographed. So good in fact that for a second I almost forgot I was watching a bad film. But of course Sheridan wouldn’t let me off that easy. He had to give me a needless, exploitative, and all-round tasteless flashback portraying the rape of the girl whose corpse kickstarted this investigation. The editing between these sequences is undeniably creative, and Sheridan proves that he’s a force to be reckoned with in terms of sheer viscera; but it all goes to show how flat, hollow, and pointless much of WIND RIVER actually is.
There’s a brief scene where Jeremy Renner actually name drops the film. In a monologue about his deceased daughter he says, “down by the wind river.” Now I’m not going to say that isn’t a better title for this film, but I’m also not not saying that. The problem with Sheridan’s writing is that it’s blatantly artificial. As someone who loves westerns and anything that captures the spirit of America’s outdoors, there’s a lot I instantly love about Sheridan’s stories. But WIND RIVER also proves that he’s not nearly as insightful or challenging as he projects himself as. Yes, there are brief formal ingenuities tucked between the folds of WIND RIVER’s dumb, patronizing writing, but not even a spectacular shootout can salvage a film so full of itself that its lungs are choking on its own blood. You didn’t get that joke because it’s a reference to WIND RIVER. And you should not watch WIND RIVER.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend