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WIND RIVER Struggles to Find Its Way Through the Blizzard (Sundance Review)

WIND RIVER Struggles to Find Its Way Through the Blizzard (Sundance Review)

From a long way off, Wind River feels like a modern prestige western. All the trappings are present. There’s grit, survival, punchy homespun aphorisms and men made out of leather. Unfortunately, the closer you get, the more generic it becomes.

The directorial debut of Sicario and Hell or High Water writer Taylor Sheridan, the film focuses on Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Wyoming Fish and Wildlife employee who kills coyotes and mountain lions along a remote mountain range for a living. After discovering the body of a barefoot teenage girl frozen in the snow miles away from any buildings, he’s recruited by the fish-out-of-Florida-water FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to track down the killer inside a Native American reservation.

The film is essentially an anti-procedural. It’s more interested in getting to the gunfire than in traditional detective work, which comes as a refreshing break from convention. A thousand versions of this movie exist where one clue leads to twelve conversations and eventually a solution, but going by the book doesn’t get anyone anywhere on the reservation, so Cory takes the lead with unconventional, super-illegal means of delivering cowboy justice.

He’s propelled in a minor way by communal solidarity–there are near-constant conversations about how life is raw struggle in the freezing quiet–and in a major way by the memory of a daughter who also died mysteriously out in the snow. If it haunts him, he barely shows it. Cory is a charming stone pillar, which allows Renner to really go for gusto in the rare moments when emotion breaks through the barrier. Like  Chris Pine and Ben Foster in Hell or High Water, Renner elevates the entire project beyond where it would be naturally.

Olsen does well, too, but her character is a genuine embarrassment.

Banner is a greenhorn FBI field agent who doesn’t seem to have gone through any training, gets hysterical, and regularly apologizes for being bad at her job. She’s introduced, no kidding, when she’s unable to drive even with a GPS. Cory, as he will many times during the film, must show her where to go. Naturally, she then jumps into sub-zero temperatures wearing dress heels and a smart blazer because she came straight from her duty station in Las Vegas without checking the weather report or thinking a single thought.

The opposite of Clarice Starling, Agent Banner is all incompetence and weakness. That’s largely because she’s the soft outsider who learns to appreciate the superior, frozen way of life, but it’s also impossible to ignore the gendered edge of how stupid she’s written when the only other women in the film are Cory’s bitter ex-wife (Julia Jones) and a bobble-headed teen who gets raped and then drowns in her own blood, alone in the snow.

As with his other scripts, Sheridan is almost solely concerned with masculinity in the terse, antique sense of What Real Men Do. Here, it’s not an exploration so much as a default celebration of it in the midst of a fairly standard story of a hunter borrowing someone else’s revenge. It’s comically simple, feeling like a dusty practice script on the road to Sicario.

The other familiar Sheridanian theme is how rough and rewarding life can be for segments of the population largely forgotten by society and cinema. Early on, Cory and Wind River Reservation’s Tribal Police Chief (Graham Greene) are making small talk about billionaires scaring off the millionaires in a recently-posh Wyoming town, and the Chief chuckles, remarking that, “When wolves start eating their Golden Retrievers, that land’s gonna go for pennies on the dollar.” That sentiment–that only the chapped can survive very long in the wilderness–is stamped all over Wind River. The locals can hack it, outsiders can’t, and even the itinerant drilling site workers don’t last all that long.

The small town feel is where Sheridan proves that he understands the local language. He gets that a lot can be said with a little, that people look out for each other, and that postcard paradises can also come with their own debilitating baggage.

Due often to Agent Banner’s ineptitude, the film lets a lot of bullets fly. The action is muscular and aggressive, finding dynamic and surprising ways to showcase intimate battle sequences (as well as some creative ways of getting into them). They’re a highlight of Wind River; it seems as though Sheridan couldn’t wait to get to the action.

The film finds its footing in the final half-hour, where a fascinating story structure choice proves once and for all that the movie cares less about mystery than it does kicking in doors. Following the opening bell of that violence, the rest of the flick is a speedy descent into madness and a climax that’s poetic and brutal.

Ultimately, Wind River is admirable but too plain to forgive its rougher edges. It relies too much on weather-beaten tropes, and its only main female character is dumber than a bag of hammers. It’s possible that will thrill an audience that wants to make westerns great again (this is soon to be your uncle’s favorite movie that plays monthly on TNT), but the under-developed screenplay and general ordinariness of the journey prove that Sheridan has a few more belt notches to go before he lives up to his gritty promise. When he does, we’re in for something incredible.

2.5 out of 5 frozen burritos


Images: Voltage Pictures

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