Auteur Theory demands that the director be viewed as the main author of a movie, and that usually works, but sometimes a wrench gets thrown in the gears. This mainly happens in situations where someone else on the crew is clearly calling most of the shots like in the two Star Wars sequels that George Lucas didn’t direct but still obviously had complete creative control over. Complications also arise in cases where movies are written and directed by different people and writers have such a clear sense of vision within a body of work as to be auteurs unto themselves. This often isn’t so clear as most Hollywood screenwriters who aren’t also directors tend to work somewhat infrequently; their scripts get sold, they circulate and get re-sold, they sit on the blacklist, they land in development hell, and it could be many years between different produced screenplays. Sometimes though, screenplays will be produced in quick succession and it starts to be clear just how much influence the writer has over storytelling. Take the case of Taylor Sheridan, who has had a writing credit on two successful films in a row: the 2015 Denis Villeneuve film Sicario and the 2016 David Mackenzie film Hell or High Water. There were some pretty clear connections between these films, some for the better some not, despite having different directors. To illuminate things even further Sheridan has opted to direct his latest screenplay himself, another crime thriller in a desolate area called Wind River.
The title Wind River refers to the Wind River Indian Reservation located in rural Wyoming and the film focuses in on a Fish and Wildlife Service agent named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) who has lived near this reservation most of his life and has earned a solid reputation with the Shoshone and Arapaho people who live there. One day while tracking some wolves that attacked some livestock he runs across the body of a dead Native American woman named Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille Chow) who appears to have frozen to death after running a long distance barefoot in the snow while trying to escape someone or something. Upon realizing that she was sexually assaulted before her death the FBI is called and an agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is flown up from Las Vegas to assess the situation and see if a larger FBI team needs to follow. It’s determined early on that because this woman’s cause of death was officially going to be exposure rather than homicide on paper the crime likely won’t fall under FBI jurisdiction, so they’re going to have to solve the case rather quickly before Banner is going to have to leave and the over-worked and underfunded tribal police are going to be stuck solving the crime themselves.
The similarities between Wind River and Hell or High Water are pretty clear, or at least you can see why they’d come from the same mind. Both are crime stories set in impoverished “middle America” type rural places that are populated by hard men with lots of guns. The earlier film was more of a heist type thing which looked at both the criminals and the people hunting them down while this take more the form of a airport novel kind of murder investigation. The film’s interest in location is a little different this time around, partly because Taylor Sheridan seems to make himself a bit more at home in this location than David Mackenzie was when he made Hell or High Water. That film was made by a British director who came to Texas with a foreigner’s eyes and gazed almost fetishisticly at a lot of the surroundings, which is a valid approach but one that is sometimes a distractions. This film doesn’t do that as much, though I probably can’t easily explain where the difference lies, but it’s noticeable. Another difference is that unlike Hell or High Water, which was populated almost entirely by Texans this film opts to add in an outsider character in Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent who can act as an audience surrogate and have local customs explained to. Occasionally her fish-out-of-water shtick goes a little too far and she says things that seem a bit too ignorant for a trained FBI agent to be saying, but for the most part her role in the movie works.
While he may not be as experienced of a director as Denis Villeneuve or David Mackenzie, Taylor Sheridan does prove to be plenty skilled behind the camera and manages to film both the landscapes and the “action” scenes very well. If the film does suffer it’s less from his work behind the camera and more from some of the same problems he’s always had as a screenwriter. In this case this mostly emerges in the film’s third act. I don’t want to spoil it too much but I will say that the eventual solution to the murder involves a degree of evil on the part of the parties responsible which is downright stupid and ineffective. He almost gets away with this through the use of an interesting structural trick and some flashily effective violence, but the film’s coda never really addresses the full extent of the carnage in its finale and Sheridan also once again feels the need to write a revenge scenario into the end of his film which is a bit over the top and not really in keeping with the tone of the rest of the movie. Sheridan handled that a lot better in Hell or High Water, what he gives us here is closer to one of Sicario’s more questionable moments.
Despite its third act problems I think I do ultimately like Wind River the best out of this little trilogy of Taylor Sheridan works, though granted I’m not quite as big of a fan of the other two as some people are. Part of that may simply be that Wyoming Indian Reservations strike me as being a fresher setting for a crime film than small town Texas and the cartel run U.S./Mexico border. The film also seemed to benefit from the fact that it didn’t feel like it was trying so damn hard to be “gritty” and instead seems a bit more honest about the fact that it’s a slightly elevated potboiler. Those films really really wanted to make sure you knew just how bad things were in their respective settings and it almost felt like you were being lectured to by a sophomore who only just realized they grew up in privilege. This film isn’t exactly devoid of those moments, but its more resigned about them. They feel more like they were added to pepper in an interesting backdrop than they were to make sure you knew what the world was like, man. I’m not exactly sure if that’s simply a sign of his sensibilities as a writer evolving a bit or if it’s his touch as a director making these moments work a bit better, maybe a combination of both. Either way I think this is a pretty solid thriller, the kind of thing that woks quite well as a middlebrow genre piece while also adding just a little something extra.