“You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is the land of wolves now.” That line is delivered in the final scene of the relentless cartel thriller Sicario, written by Taylor Sheridan. In that film a woman discovers she is in over her head in a lawless world of male-driven violence and subterfuge. Wind River, Sheridan’s directorial debut, opens with a wolf being killed by a hunter. Not even the wolves survive this time. This is the land of hunters.
But is Wind River, which closes with a dedication to the innumerable missing Native American women (literally, since there is no statistic that tracks their disappearances), better off for focusing its attentions and emotional heft on more of the clipped, stoic models of cinematic masculinity? Is the story more interesting for telling the story of the hunter rather than the prey? I think not, unfortunately.
The only time Wind River actually lets us get to know its central victim, an 18 year old girl named Natalie, is through a flashback that graphically depicts exactly how she was brutalized. Cory, Jeremy Renner’s character and the central hunter of our story, has a Native American wife, but she is left to stay in shuttered in her house while Cory takes care of the action of our story. Elizabeth Olsen’s character, Jane, fills the audience’s limited outside perspective, as Emily Blunt did in Sicario, and ostensibly provides an active female participant in the narrative. But where Sicario handily used limiting perspective and subterfuge to lay a story about deceit and ground that in a story specifically about Blunt’s character, Wind River seems content to use Jane simply to let us know more about Cory. In fact, Jane never once drives the action in the film. She is frequently depicted as humiliated, ineffectual, over her head, and though she has a dead-eye she never really drives the investigation itself.
I have no doubt Sheridan’s heart is in the right place, but the storytelling in regards to Jane’s character feels at an impasse with the story’s sympathies. As does the fact that despite this being a film about a Native American reservation, both the main characters are white. And we only experience the suffering of the people on the reservation through the anguish of fathers and sons as their wives, daughters, and sisters are largely left to suffer off screen. That is until the suffering becomes violent; then Sheridan is keen to let us watch. The whole focus of the story feels at odds with those lines of text about the missing Native American women at the end of the film — It just seems to highlight how they’re missing from this film as well. And isn’t that the more interesting story to tell here? Rather than another story about brooding men going on missions of revenge? It’s clearly well worn territory for Sheridan, not to mention cinema at large, but I’m chalking this one up to a missed opportunity for him to tell something more bold and affecting for his first directorial effort.
Fortunately, as a director, Sheridan capably imbues his own script with the same moody atmosphere and shocking bouts of violence that have characterized his other projects, and this time around seems more comfortable behind the camera than at the typewriter (word processor doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?). The landscape becomes a tangible figure in the story, offering an unrelentingly harsh, almost alien, backdrop to the investigation. However, as shocking as the violence is there’s little in the way of sustained tension, mostly because the violence opts for surprise rather than suspense and finishes almost as quickly as it begins. There is a notably tense seen at the climax of the movie, but by the time guns started going off I was hungering for more of that pervasive sense of danger and wrongness. But then it was over, and it leaves the film feeling oddly dramatically lopsided, as if the danger ends almost as quickly as it begins.
Sheridan may not have lived up to his potential with this film, as it left me feeling like it was a thematically-limp younger sibling to Sicario, but it marks a promising step in his career as a director. Here’s hoping next time around he’ll be able to write the story worth telling, rather than what he’s comfortable telling.