Fort Worth product Taylor Sheridan has been one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriters, and this week his directing debut, Wind River, expands to theaters in Tarrant County. This Western shares some identifiable DNA with Sicario and Hell or High Water, two movies that he wrote to be directed by others: law enforcement battling criminals in remote rural locations, everyone in those locations struggling against hopelessness and poverty, and a great reverence for the landscape. His first directing effort doesn’t rise to the level of those other two movies, but it’s solid genre entertainment all the same.
The film begins with Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a ranger for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Wyoming, taking his 8-year-old son (Teo Briones) to the Wind River Indian Reservation near his home to visit the boy’s grandparents. The divorced Cory hopes to spend time with his son and kill a mountain lion that’s preying on his in-laws’ livestock, but those plans are shot to hell when he searches for the lion and instead finds the frozen body of 18-year-old Shoshone girl Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), barefoot in the snow, miles from any inhabited place. The case dredges up all of Cory’s issues — not only was Natalie his daughter’s best friend, but the manner of her death is similar to that daughter’s unsolved death from three years before. The FBI has jurisdiction over the crime scene, but the only person it sends is Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a new agent who’s completely unfamiliar with the terrain or the harsh winter weather.
We’ve seen much of this before, the older man with issues, the callow young woman who nevertheless possesses some skills, the hostility towards white people (especially law enforcement) on the res. It works because Sheridan is particularly strong on his script’s procedural elements, as we see the logistical challenges of interrogating suspects and calling in backup in such a remote and inhospitable place. Like many writers who become directors, Sheridan is a bit too fond of his character-revealing speeches when he could reveal character by more economical means, like the little bit when the Las Vegas-based Agent Banner comes in with weather-appropriate clothing, and the tribal police chief (Graham Greene) pulls the tag off her jacket. This 107-minute film would have been better at 15 to 20 minutes shorter. The extended flashback at the climax detailing what happened to Natalie is a regrettably clumsy misstep, too.
For all that, the actors respond to the writer’s touch, with Renner looking convincingly haunted, Hell or High Water’s Gil Birmingham giving depth to Natalie’s grieving father, and Greene bringing his dry wit to the proceedings. (People really should cast him in roles other than ones that are specifically Native American.) The fairly straightforward murder case unfolds satisfyingly as well, with one shootout at a drug den that Natalie’s brother (Martin Sensmaier) frequents, as well as a good one at the climax where a phalanx of lawmen go to interview the perpetrator, only to find themselves outnumbered and outgunned. Sheridan is clearly still learning his craft as a director, but this debut of his shows his potential.
Starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. Rated R.