Wind River is a decent, if flawed, directorial effort from Sheridan that showcases his strength as an actors' director, more than as a writer.
Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent - and divorced parent - who makes his living hunting/killing predators that prey on the animals and farmland of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. One day, while scoping out the wilderness in search of a "lion" that has been feeding on local cattle, Corey stumbles upon the frozen, bloodied and brutalized corpse of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), an eighteen-year old woman from the Reservation - and someone who, along with her family and father Martin (Gil Birmingham), is far from a stranger to Corey.
Then U.S. government sends Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a younger and less experienced FBI agent who is typically based in Las Vegas, to oversee the subsequent investigation of Natalie's death, in cooperation with the Reservation's head of police, Ben (Graham Greene). However, it quickly becomes apparent to Jane that she's out of her element in the vast, frozen wilderness that is Wind River and will need all the help she can get from Corey, including his sharp tracking skills and thorough knowledge of the landscape, in her efforts to find out who was responsible for Natalie's horrific death.
After examining the war against drug-related violence along the U.S./Mexico border in Sicario and weaving a yarn about bank-robbing brothers in economically-stricken West Texas in Hell or High Water, actor-turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan explores a murder mystery on a Wyoming Native American reservation with his script for Wind River. Directing from his own screenplay this time around, Sheridan's Wind River serves as a thematic conclusion to his trilogy of neo-western flavored stories about the treachery of life in the new American frontiers, as well as a chance to show off what he has learned from his previous collaborations with such lauded directors as Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie. Wind River is a decent, if flawed, directorial effort from Sheridan that showcases his strength as an actors' director, more than as a writer.
Similar to his previous screenplays, Sheridan's Wind River script plays out as a pulpy genre movie with more on its mind than entertainment - in this case, concerns about the poor quality of life on modern Native American reservations, the high-rate of disappearances and sexual assaults against Native American women, and how the U.S. government is complicit in both of those things. Sheridan keeps the central murder investigation plot thread here simple and clean, leaving himself room to weave in more substantial moments of character development and emotional drama. Although the murder mystery storyline is engaging and clever in its ultimate reveal of whodunnit, the payoff arrives a bit too suddenly and the actual mystery is likewise straightforward to a fault (as telegraphed by some on-the-nose dialogue). Wind River struggles to subvert the conventions of its genre, in this respect.
As a whole, Wind River has many of the same strengths and weakness as Sheridan's previous work. Like Sicario and Hell or High Water, Wind River paints its Wyoming setting (which was, in reality, primarily filmed in Utah) as being a rugged and destitute world that is the result of larger, systematic problems in the U.S. However, unlike Hell or High Water in particular, Wind River has less success providing meaningful social commentary through its B-movie storytelling and instead, winds up referencing modern-day social/political concerns without having as much to say about them. Part of the problem with that lies in the framing of the story, which presents the Native American characters as victims who are strong and capable, but are mostly robbed of their agency and left to watch from the sides as the movie's white male protagonist (and to a lesser degree, white female protagonist) saves the day.
While Wind River's leads come off as archetypical to the point of being stereotypical for this reason, they gain some depth thanks to the actors bringing them to life. Sheridan's background as an actor served him well here, judging by the strong performances he gets from Jeremy Renner as Corey Lambert - a modern-day gunslinger, complete with a tortured backstory - and Renner's fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe actor Elizabeth Olsen as Jane Banner, the idealistic and determined but inexperienced federal agent in this crime tale. Jane is a more active player here than Emily Blunt's FBI agent was in Sicario, but similarly ends up being sidelined more than necessary, for the purposes of the story being told. Renner and Olsen's mismatched partners do enjoy a nice chemistry with Graham Greene as Ben, the reservation's practical and charismatic head of police (who has a fitting sense of gallows humor), as well as Hell or High Water's Gil Birmingham as Natalie's father, Martin Hanson.
Sheridan's directorial methods here bring to mind MacKenzie's style more than Villeneuve's, in terms of his previous collaborators. Wind River nicely captures the chilling temperatures and isolated feeling of its setting through the cinematography by Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild), but lacks the visual poetry and rich, painterly imagery found in both Sicario and Hell or High Water. Sequencing is another issue here too, as the handful of action scenes and suspense-driven situations featured here are serviceable, yet otherwise unmemorable and somewhat flat in terms of their execution. Wheres Sheridan is apt at handling grisly and disturbing subject matter as a screenwriter, his attempts to be raw and gritty with his direction are more heavy-handed (including, his use of another haunting rustic score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis). On the whole, Sheridan proves himself to be a competent director on Wind River - just one with much room for improvement.
Despite having the same shortcomings as Sicario and Hell or High Water and then some, Wind River is a worthy thematic conclusion to Sheridan's trifecta of stories about crime and the law, set against the backdrop of three different modern-day equivalents to the Old West. The movie likewise has much more dramatic heft and more to say about the state of the world than your average B-movie does, thanks to its strong performances and politically-charged storyline. Wind River isn't a must-see for cinemaphiles the way that Sheridan's previous scripted efforts were (and its awards seasons prospects are more questionable for it), but it's certainly worth checking out for those filmgoers who enjoyed the actor/writer/director's previous crime-thrillers.