Edited by Sanyam Garg
Taylor Sheridan's debut directorial-writing venture is a devastatingly important portrayal of the grief, survival and brutish crimes of the 'Wind River Indian Reservation', situated in the U.S. state of Wyoming. A police chief, played by Graham Greene, rightly tells the fish-out-of-water FBI rookie detective Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), "This ain't the land of back-up! This is the land of you're-on-your-own". The frosty and chilling setting is intricately built by Sheridan to seem constantly forbidding and hostile to its inhabitants. Cinematographer Ben Richardson's grim aerial shots of the land's sombre sheets of snow are always unflinching, suggesting a kind of curse over it. He never glamorizes the landscape. Hence, you feel his camera is like a mother showering love on her dismal, gloomy creation. The imagery is pedantically complemented by eerily alluring background vocals with elevating-choir notes at the right moments. By meshing together these cinematic forces, Sheridan's script achieves the incorporation of the titular environment as one of its key characters. In fact, Wind River feels like the crafty antagonist of the story. Its snow is like a clear, unclouded canvas that when smeared with blood, seems to add to the brutality and unsettling gravity of the film's deaths and murders.
Plot-wise, 'Wind River' is quite straight-forward. When 18-year-old, Natalie is found frozen to death, rookie Agent Jane Banner arrives on the scene to investigate. After Forensics can't declare it a rape-murder, she teams up with the Tribal police and U.S. Fish agent, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner, delivering his career-best performance), a local hunter who knows his way around the punishing environment. Renner as Lambert is a highly grounded take on the heroes of the wild west. The kind who would eventually ride off into the sunset. His Western, 'Clint Eastwood' squints are on-point, and his character's emotional delicacy in those dark moments of his reminiscence will make your heart sink. Elizabeth Olsen will remind you of Emily Blunt's role in 'Sicario'. Sheridan truly respects his characters, and always puts them at the forefront. The story thrives on them, and their drives. Underneath its showy layers of blunt viciousness, 'Wind River' is still very human. It's veristic and soul-stirring in its approach, despite the grittiness of its premise.
As the film elegantly unravels its surprises, the stakes get unexpectedly higher. The proceedings get more personal, as the damaged warrior's vengeful motive is finally more condensed. Cleverly enough, Sheridan doesn't introduce the culprits to us till the climax, flooring viewers expecting another whodunit. He spills the beans in a flashback sequence instead of conventionally feeding tiny bits of information to the viewer along the hunt. What works though is how the shock level is still insanely high. Tension rises when the guns come out, and everyone comes into place for a cold, neo-western standoff. You sit there motionless, watching a chaotic and sporadic spurt in the body count. It feels as if the film's anchors have been shook off. The remarkable sound design and raw execution of this sequence keep it tonally consistent with the rest of the film, and not once does the gore feel stylised.
The ending works on all levels. With its sense of retribution, it's very emotionally resonant. The film's two wounded fathers sitting together, sharing their pain and anger almost moved me to tears. They’ve learnt to look ahead, accepting that their pain will always be a part of them.
This is easily one of the year's best and deserves a viewing devoid of preconceptions based on the film's marketing material. Go in fresh and open-minded, and maybe even take a tissue box along.