Wind River Is Predatory
Review by Aaron Haughton
Wind River is the latest film from Taylor Sheridan, which marks his return to the director's chair (following 2011's Vile). The film is a snow-covered thriller about a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) and a local game hunter with a haunted past (Jeremy Renner). When a local girl is found dead on the Wind River Native American reservation, the two team up in an attempt to solve her murder. Sheridan's always been a very good screenwriter with little fat to trim from his narratives, and Wind River is no departure from what we've already become accustomed to, but the real question is: how does he fare in the director's chair?
The short answer to that question is that Sheridan is just an OK director. At times, the direction feels sloppy, and at other times it feels very tight. Ultimately, he relies more on natural landscape, his taut narrative, and the actor's pathos to hold interest, as opposed to any flair he may bring to the table as a visualist. This isn't necessarily a negative though, but overall, Sheridan is a fairly basic director without many rule breaks. In fact, his direction is very old school rudimentary, abiding to the rule of thirds for it's entirety.
At times, Sheridan succumbs to the shaky cam, which is sometimes warranted and other times wholly unnecessary. In some instances, he attempts to showcase or emulate a character's perspective with the introduction of the shaky cam, which is somewhat vindicated. Other times, he uses it as a crutch to heighten the tension. However, there are times that it just doesn't service the story. Take Renner's emotional lament about his deceased daughter's death, for example. The shaky camera pretty much ruins that entire scene and what would otherwise be the most touching and fundamental portion of the film, which is just lazy, bad directing.
However, there is one really great bit of nuance that Sheridan brings to the direction table, something I'm not seen before, which was perspective shots of a character who was just maced. The vision is narrowed and blurry and red. It heightens the tension of the scene, as the character navigates through a perpetrator's house. It's a good marriage between the visual, the situational, and the presentation (editing), and how all three elements can be used to craft tense moments. The downside is that it's the first really great scene and comes at around the 1 hour mark of an 110 minute film.
The story moves at a rather slow pace with moments of heart wrench and armrest grip. It's a rather tight and concise script, but I think it's Sheridan's worst to date. It beats you over the head with the predator/prey theme in a very on the nose way, which isn't present in Sicario or Hell or High Water. And if you're unwilling to agree with me here, let me paint a very Bob Ross picture.
The film opens with a woman running in the snow afraid for her life. The shaky cam following her implies that maybe someone's following, but you know in the pit of your stomach this isn't the case and you also know that she's probably been violated. The next scene is a standoff between some sheep and a wolf or coyote, who gets blown away by Renner, which is an obvious predator and prey parallel (this isn't intellectual Eisenstein). Again, we see the predatory theme take place within the first act when Renner is hired to catch three mountain lions (a mother and two cubs) who've slaughtered a steer on the Native American reservation. The tracking of these predators leads to the prey of the deceased woman from the beginning of the film. Renner even says later on in the first act, "I'm a hunter of predators." Sheridan just beats you over the head with this theme in far too obvious a way.
The predator/prey motif wouldn't be so bad either if it were justified and returned to these themes in the final act, but this isn't the case. The thematic bashing seems to only exist to make a ham-fisted correlation between the predatory and the hunted. It really doesn't make much sense in any other way. The mountain lion narrative thread gets brought up, but never neatly closed. That very fact makes it present to only serve a theme that doesn't come full circle like it ought to. Instead, Sheridan chooses a different kind of poetic justice (vengeance) to close the narrative gap. This choice still services the predator/prey theme to a certain extent, but not in the kinda purely symbolic way the mountain lions would've.
A good thing about Sheridan's script is that it relies heavily on the subtextual, which is an element that merits close attention and promotes audience engagement. It shows more than it tells, which is a screenwriting 101 that seldom gets upheld. It's not lazy, but at the same time it isn’t (points back to loose narrative themes and knots), especially when held against Sheridan's last two screenplays.
One thing I don't understand is why a lot of people are gushing over Olsen's performance. It doesn't make sense when you watch the film. I mean, her performance is sound, but she's always been good (look at Martha Marcy May Marlene -- it just seems that people forgot there's an Olsen sister who hasn't been sleeping in the basement of a cocaine warehouse). It's just that she's not the focus at all, or all that vital to the overall story when you cut down to the bone. In my opinion, this film is all Renner, and he eats up the scenery with predatory fashion. He delivers a very convincing performance, which I'm calling his best to date (but I'm guessing Marvel fans will qualm with me to that end); there's really no argument here, but I welcome the debate.
On the whole, Wind River is a solid film that only pales in comparison when staked against Sheridan's other works. It's devoid of the dumb clichés that would otherwise be implemented if the film were written by someone else (like trying to force a romance between Olsen and Renner). It's about struggling to cope and maintain stasis and normality after our children are wrongfully taken from us too early. It’s also about the mistreatment and injustices of the Native Indians and the hardships they're faced with as a result of our insensitive cruelty. Sheridan hits you with a solemn final image and a very shocking statistic. I'd recommend giving this one a watch in your local theater, but only if you've seen (or if your theater doesn't have) other essentials like Good Time first.
Rating: 4 mountain lions outta 5.
What did you think? How did Wind River stack up against Sheridan's other films? Is he a good director, or would the film have been more interesting in the hands of another filmmaker? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and, as always, remember to viddy well!