If you know Taylor Sheridan’s previous screenplays, the drug cartel thriller Sicario and the heist movie Hell or High Water, then watching his directorial debut, Wind River, will occasionally give you déjà vu. Character types, motivations, social commentary, even a couple of scenes (like a law-breaking interrogation in the back of a police car) reappear in a way that goes beyond an auteur returning to themes and ideas he finds particularly interesting. For the work of a first-time director, Wind River feels oddly familiar.

Elizabeth Olsen plays a tough, professional, but nonetheless out-of-her-depth FBI agent who recalls Emily Blunt’s tough, professional, but nonetheless out-of-her-depth FBI agent in Sicario. Olsen’s Jane Banner is apparently the only agent in Wyoming when a Federal Wildlife Officer (Jeremy Renner) stumbles upon the dead body of a teenager while out on a hunt on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Renner’s Cory Lambert assumes the role played by Benicio Del Toro in Sicario; the hyper-efficient killer with his own moral code who serves as the naive FBI agent’s tour guide into a harsh reality she didn’t know existed. (Like Del Toro’s Alejandro, Cory also has a very personal motivation for his actions — the same motivation, in fact.) There’s also Graham Greene ably subbing in for Hell or High Water’s Jeff Bridges as the droll lawman who’s seen it all.

Cory is a curious character. He works patrolling the reservation and protecting its livestock from predators, and his ex-wife is Native American. At times, he speaks on behalf of Native Americans, and he loves to explain to anyone who will listen how to understand tracks left in snow. (He must say “Come here, let me show you!” to Jane at least three different times.) He frequently waxes poetic about life in the West, and at one point he even plays the role of impromptu grief counselor to the father of the dead teen. He’s not your typical strong silent type.

He’s also one key difference between Wind River and Sheridan’s previous work, and not for the better. Sheridan’s always shown a great interest in extremely competent men who are good at their jobs, and Cory is no exception. But his protagonists are usually more flawed, more troubled, and therefore more interesting. Though Cory has suffered a great loss, he doesn’t appear burdened by it. He’s basically the most badass hunter tracker dude who’s ever lived. He’s a perfect shot with any and every firearm, and a survivalist who can drive a snowmobile through wooded mountains at 80 miles an hour. He’s more of a superhero than the actual superhero Jeremy Renner plays in The Avengers.

The crime story, involving the hunt for the men who murdered this girl, is strictly by-the-numbers (and there are a few clue that still don’t fit together in my mind) but Sheridan proves himself a surprisingly effective director of action. Sicario and Hell or High Water both distinguished themselves with their shocking bursts of violence, something Sheridan very much continues here to superb effect. When someone or something gets shot in Wind River it’s not cool; it’s ugly and sad. Cory tells Jane at one point that you can’t let your guard down out in Wind River for a single second, and the movie bears out his philosophy; from the very first scene, bloodshed can erupt out of nowhere at any time. The climax of the film involves a complicated and suspenseful Mexican standoff, followed a few scenes later by a frenetic and bloody shootout, both of which rival anything in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre for sheer tension and brutality.

Wind River looks impressive, particularly for the effort of a first-time filmmaker, and the volatile gunfights suggest Sheridan paid very close attention to the way men like Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie have adapted his material in the past. But the film’s not as harsh as Sicario or as darkly funny as Hell or High Water, and despite a dedicated and scowly performance from Renner, Cory often feels like a magical force of frontier justice rather than a modern-day cowboy. Sheridan clearly has a future as a director. Next time, he just needs to give himself fresher material to work with.


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