Cinemagoers can be quite contented that, instead of following through on a plan to labor as a ranch hand after 20 years of acting in small roles for television, Taylor Sheridan wrote — in just six months — the screenplays for “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River.”
The first two are rightfully-acclaimed contemporary Westerns and now the third, “Wind River,” has also arrived in theaters. In his screenwriting, Sheridan has moved from the U.S.-Mexico border at Ciudad Juarez to hardscrabble West Texas and now to a reservation in snowbound Wyoming.
As he is wont to do, Sheridan begins the film with a stark scene of terror. A young Native American woman without shoes flees, bleeding, across deep snow and collapses as respirated blood freezes in her lungs. The teenager is called Natalie (Kelsey Asbille Chow), and her body is discovered by Cory Lambert (played with the trademark wounded eyes of Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracker looking for a mountain lion and finding something else. He is a cowboy on a snow mobile who seems to hunt death itself, scanning the horizon with a classic thousand-yard stare, perhaps because he’s often looking at something a thousand yards away.
Cory calls in the crime to tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene, wonderfully wry), who oversees a frigid mountain strewn with trailers, bullet-pocked road signs and upside down American flags.
The overburdened, under-resourced men have a kinship because they are accustomed to watching it get very dark very quickly for young people in Wind River. The story is more abstract to Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), the FBI special agent who arrives on the scene from Fort Lauderdale by way of Las Vegas. She learns that outsiders in Wyoming are a) really chilly and b) unlikely to get helpful answers from the locals. She interviews Natalie’s father Martin (a superb Gil Birmingham) and gets a cold shoulder; she interviews Natalie’s mother (Althea Sam) and gets something worse.
Sheridan, who also directs, does well to not aestheticize the poverty and sorrow of life on Wind River reservation. He straightforwardly depicts its bitterness in a film with the most snow mobile tracking shots you’ll ever see. His shooting style is mostly understated but includes a crucial, audacious cut to a flashback of Natalie meeting her boyfriend Matt (Jon Bernthal) at his trailer on an oil drilling site high in the mountains. For a moment, they dream of a sunny future far from the rez — in Ojai, California’s Shangra-La — but the image fades.
When Cory, Jane and company come to investigate the whereabouts of Matt, they run into heavily-armed militia of drill site security guys. They evince the rapaciousness of caged animals and spoil for a fight — someone says, “Luck don’t live out here.”
At a certain point this police procedural plot swerves into a bloodbath — no one waits for test results or warrants or backup. The violence in Sheridan’s films also feels harsher than that in many other movies with high body counts. As with “Hell or High Water,” bullets hit with a weight, an alarming aggression that lands much differently than the bloody operatics of a Quentin Tarantino picture.
And a great score by Nick Cave is a proper echo to the gunfire — the music sounds like the whispers of the dead in the trees. The morose soundscape also includes snowmobiles kick-started with a lion’s growl and the tearful sound of a swing set twisting in the breeze.
‘Wind River’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 1:51. Visit cinemawest.com.