Taylor Sheridan has crafted two of the best screenplays so far this decade with Sicario and Hell or High Water. He perfectly blends graphic violence with humanity set in a social and economic climate—for instance, the War on Drugs of Sicario and the economic crisis of Texas in Hell or High Water. Sheridan’s latest, Wind River, is his directorial debut and brings forth what made his two previous films so brilliant. This time, set in the most remote area of the United States. So remote even the officials do not have the statistics of how many Native American people have gone missing.
In Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cody Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is assigned to hunt for predators who kill livestock. One day, while out in the snowy wilderness, he stumbles upon the corpse of an eighteen-year-old Native American girl named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille). Along with FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), Lambert is assigned to investigate the presumed murder of the girl, whose father (Gil Birmingham) is stricken with grief about his loss.
Filmed in and around Park City, Utah (the home of Sundance Film Festival), this movie is as realistic as it is devastating. Sheridan puts it to miraculous use with his great screenplay and direction, hauntingly beautiful visuals, and violence so sudden it’s effective. The characters feel like real people.
Renner’s Lambert almost resembles the tropes of a classic Western hero. He’s a caring father who is dealing with a rough past. He knows every area of the snowy Wyoming Mountains (not to mention a keen eye when it comes to hunting game). The scenes he has with the girl’s father (superb performance by Birmingham) are some of the finest moments I’ve seen this year at the movies. Olsen’s Banner, in contrast, is a rookie coming from Las Vegas. She arrives on the scene without bringing any winter clothes. But—she ends up being in charge of the investigation with Lambert. These two stars are at the top of their game here.
Once the violence comes into the picture, it makes the audience jump out of their skin. With its slow burn, the movie leads up to one satisfying payoff. I’m hoping Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay will be a tie-in for an Oscar nomination. This is one of the year’s best films.