In Desolate Lands, Survival is Everything

By Vincent Abbatecola

Taylor Sheridan has become a notable screenwriter over the last couple of years, providing audiences with the white-knuckle crime thrillers “Sicario” in 2015 and “Hell or High Water” last year. With these two films, he has shown himself to be someone whose stories focus on characters and their morals when faced with the law.

With Sheridan’s latest film, “Wind River,” which he both wrote and directed, he continues to display a serious talent for constructing crime stories. While his writing is a little better than his directing in this case, he nevertheless delivers a tense and emotional journey through the frozen wilderness.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent tasked with investigating the killing of livestock on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Upon his search, he finds the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow). When he reveals his findings to local law enforcement, the FBI is brought in to look into the case, with agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson) leading the investigation, who asks Lambert to use his tracking skills to help her find those responsible for the young woman’s death.

Jeremy Renner’s performance is reminiscent of his work in 2009’s “The Hurt Locker,” in that both characters are very calculated in their work and provide us with an idea of their thought processes as they go about their duties. In the scenes where his character is alone on a hunt, Renner obviously doesn’t have any dialogue; but even in these sections of the film, we still get a bit of that intensity he brings to his best roles because of how well he portrays Cory when he’s in his element, that being a game of survival. Between these scenes and the ones where he interacts with other characters, his acting abilities and Sheridan’s writing give us a look into Cory through both his character’s actions and his words.

While there isn’t much to Olson’s character, she plays the part with the aggressiveness that’s needed for such an authoritative role. And Gil Birmingham, who plays Kelsey’s father, manages to display the feelings of unimaginable loss and grief, all in just three scenes.

Similar to his last two screenplays, Sheridan’s work for “Wind River” offers a deceptively simple story, but it’s one that thrives on establishing his main characters. Even before Cory makes the heartbreaking discovery of Natalie in the snow, the narrative offers us plenty of time to learn about his character, while still managing to keep a few things undisclosed about him until the time is right to reveal them. And in between these moments of building the characters, the film offers enough of a plot to keep us invested, despite it being rather straightforward. This is similar to what he did with “Hell or High Water,” in which he didn’t overdo it with the bank robberies and shootouts, but instead spent time in helping us become familiar with the characters. “Wind River” has two big scenes with confrontations between the law and the suspects, but then the narrative takes us around the reservation, introduces us to its inhabitants, and brings us to different groups of suspects that may or may not have had a role in Natalie’s death. Because of this, we have an understanding of what this kind of environment is like and the dangers that the main characters are up against.

Just like what we saw in “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” Sheridan places the story in isolated, intimidating, and near-barren landscapes, all of which are superbly captured by cinematographer Ben Richardson. Through his lensing of these territories, he captures the bleakness that the characters must face as they do what they can to survive the unforgiving conditions.

Although Sheridan’s direction isn’t quite as memorable as the filmmakers with whom he worked before (Denis Villeneuve for “Sicario” and David Mackenzie for “Hell or High Water”), he does show he has learned a couple of things from those past experiences and could very well become a great director if he helms another movie or two. We see evidence of this in a few scenes, namely the confrontation in the victim’s brother’s trailer and the climactic shootout between the law enforcement and their suspects.

Sheridan’s recent body of work is enough to give any viewer confidence that he will continue to impress us with what he can do, and as someone who creates stories that bring us to places we wouldn’t want to go, Sheridan sure does have a talent of making us want to take the plunge.

Final Grade: B+