Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Film Review: The icy, unflinching Wind River cements Taylor Sheridan as one of cinema's best modern writers

Taylor Sheridan began his feature film screenwriting career with 2015's Sicario; a bold, thrilling foray into the Mexican drug cartel that was as tightly plotted as it was numbingly intense. He followed it up with last year's Hell or High Water; a funny, lovable effort that again demonstrated Sheridan's talent for crisp, smile-inducing dialogue. His third feature script comes in the form of Wind River, and as well as wrapping up this loose trilogy it's also the first time Sheridan has directed his own screenplay. Needless to really say, the result is a knockout.

Much like Sicario and Hell or High Water, the coldly titled Wind River is as much about setting as it is about characters or story or themes. At its core, Wind River feels very much like a modern noir thriller, except rather than lie in city shadows it throws us into the snowy mountains of an Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the frozen body of an 18-year old girl, and it's clear there's been some foul play. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent to determine whether or not the girl was murdered, and the two begin an investigation into what happened.

While the central narrative feels very by the numbers, Sheridan infuses his film with his own signature touch, transforming Wind River from your standard detective story into a modern masterpiece of sorts. His sweeping shots of the mountainous setting ooze isolation, something felt even more by the way the girl's body is found so far away from any kind of civilisation. Sheridan doesn't restrict his camera to giant overhead shots though, whenever guns are drawn he mostly keeps the frame tight around his characters. The cinematography here wants to enforce the film's setting as an isolated and harsh environment, and it more than succeeds: Sheridan's script and cinematographer Ben Richardson are very clearly operating on the same wavelength. The setting is as much a character here as Cory and Jane are.

Sheridan isn't only interested in depicting a setting though, keeping his characters foregrounded at almost all times. While neither Cory nor Jane are as well established as Sicario's Kate Macer, Sheridan nonetheless infuses them with history and motive. Cory is a man who can relate to the crime in more ways than one, and his eventual telling of that story is a heartbreaking sequence - in one of his best yet, Jeremy Renner gives a confident yet delicate performance here. Jane is relegated to a more supporting character level, but Sheridan puts her through hell across the film's 110 minutes. Many writers attempting to craft an archetypal "strong female character" end up making them invincible, but Sheridan avoids that pitfall every time and his female characters are infinitely more interesting from his doing so. Jane is a closed off but endlessly fascinating character, I'd happily watch her as the protagonist of her own film.

I've seen many accusing Wind River of being a slow movie, but I found it to be nothing of the sort. The film takes its time before actually embarking on the investigation, but it uses its opening half hour to establish the setting, to introduce its characters, to get through the procedural stuff before it can truly shock us. And, boy, will it shock you. Sheridan dodges predictability like the plague, and even though Wind River doesn't climax in a cheap twist ending you'll still be unable to guess where the story is headed. The film follows a set path, but sidesteps every cliche and avoids every easy answer.

When the moment comes for the film to wrap up its story and answer its central mystery, Sheridan understands that having a character cry and tell the truth is a dull ending. He wisely just takes us to the moment via flashback, but even then he finds a smart way of doing so. To say more than this would risk on spoiling a brutal climactic scene that shouldn't be spoiled, but Wind River handles this climax ingeniously. There's something unflinching, almost unforgiving about how Sheridan tackles his film's final act. There are both shocking displays of violence and emotionally rich conversations, as well as one of the most unbearably intense film sequences of the year in the form of a stand off that reaches a surprising conclusion.

Again, similar to his other two efforts, Sheridan demonstrates that dialogue can create tension as much as any gunshot or screeching soundtrack. The words that come from these characters' mouths crackle as they land - I lost count of how many times one simple line made me grin like an idiot throughout this film. Sheridan's dialogue ranges from violent and powerful to soft and poetic, and there's not a dud line in the film. He writes as if his stories take place in worlds away from ours, his characters don't speak the way we do and yet we relate to them in ways we may not even realise. Whether Cory's threatening someone or Jane's commenting on something she's experiencing for the first time, Sheridan's words hit the nail on the head.

Wind River doesn't shy away from emotion, but that doesn't make it any easier of a film to swallow. This is a cold look at vicious true events, or so the film tells us in its opening. Wind River may not be based off a real story, but stories like this do happen, and have happened. Sheridan doesn't quieten his violence and he doesn't dumb down his dialogue, he lets his character speak their minds and crafts a rich, thematically overflowing film in the process. This is incredible stuff from Sheridan, and in my eyes it cements his place as one of cinema's greatest current writers. If his directorial career is set to be anywhere even close to as strong as his screenwriting one, what a future this man has ahead of him.

In A Sentence

Making the most of its harsh, icy imagery and powerful, poetic dialogue, Wind River serves up scene after scene of unrelenting tension and showcases Taylor Sheridan as one of the best writers working today.

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