Even after he wrote the screenplay for Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 drug-wars thriller Sicario, most people knew Taylor Sheridan only as an actor, particularly for his recurring role on TV’s Sons of Anarchy. More people took notice when his screenplay for David Mackenzie’s extraordinary 2016 heartland financial-crisis drama Hell or High Water was nominated for an Oscar in 2016. Before that, Sheridan had directed one feature, the 2011 horror thriller Vile. (Raise your hand if you’ve seen it. I haven’t.)
That means the picture Sheridan has brought to the "Un Certain Regard" program here in Cannes, Wind River, isn’t a debut. But it’s definitely an arrival. Wind River is what we used to call, and not always pejoratively, a conventional film, a crime procedural that tells a solid story, with well-defined characters, and perhaps opens us up to a world we didn’t previously know much about. TV series now often fill this role, but there’s something to be said for a well-crafted motion picture, cinematically astute, that demands that we sit down and pay attention for a solid two hours or so, with no intermittent fridge runs.
Wind River, which Sheridan both wrote and directed, is that kind of picture. Jeremy Renner is Cory, an employee of Wyoming Fish and Wildlife—his job is to kill the animals who prey on local livestock, and his jurisdiction includes a Native American Reservation that seems to have been forgotten by the world, though by the movie’s end, the qualifier “seems to have been” will be unnecessary.
Cory has a young son (Teo Briones) and is icily estranged from his wife (Julia Jones). The couple’s difficulties are explained, in bracketed spaces of subtle crosshatching, as the story moves forward. Cory is an ace marksman, always getting his kill because he knows how his prey thinks, to the point of sympathizing with it: Dressed in snow-colored camouflage gear, he’s so one with nature, he’s anonymous in it.
Cory’s skills are put to a new use when the body of a young woman from the reservation is found far from her home. Something terrible has happened to her—there’s evidence of rape—and she clearly walked a long way, barefoot, through the snow. A young FBI agent, Elisabeth Olsen’s Jane, comes all the way from Las Vegas to investigate—she’s the only agent free to trek to this remote location, and so she comes alone. (As unrealistic as that is, let’s go with it, for the story’s sake.) She knows she's in over her head, less a sign of weakness than a signal of strength. She asks Cory to help her unravel this woman's story.
What follows is a picture of another America, one that isn’t defined by red or blue, or divided into groups according to who voted for whom and why. But it does show us, in threads deftly woven, how circumstances can push hard against people, making everyday living a battle. Wind River is a modern western, and one of very few forays into the genre that's set in snow country. (William Wellman’s 1954 Track of the Cat is a fine example, if you’re looking for one.) The world of snow can be as desolate as the desert is, and its solitude—both soothing and ice-deadly—makes it a great setting for a western drama. Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson use that landscape beautifully in a story that reaches out in several directions—it’s about, among other things, communities of forgotten people, the intricacies of gender dynamics and the ways in which violence against women can be insidiously veiled. The story comes to rest in a way that’s both somber and gratifying.
Sheridan knows what he’s doing, and if he keeps making pictures that mean something to him—as opposed to solely taking the big Hollywood jobs that filmmakers tend to accept once they’ve arrived—who knows what he’ll be able to accomplish? He’s wonderful with actors, perhaps because he’s a longtime actor himself. That kinship can backfire, though that hardly seems to be the case here. The always-terrific Graham Greene appears as the reservation sheriff, and Gil Birmingham, the wonderful actor who played Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water, is superb as Martin, the father of the deceased woman. Olsen has a serene, baby-faced gravity about her, but when Jane steps forward and takes action, we see there’s steel there, too. Renner, with that great Popeye face, is terrific. His Cory is a man who once knew his place in the order of things but seems to have lost it. To watch him track his way back is a prickly-tender pleasure.