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September 2017 | Charlotte Gajek

Taylor Sheridan’s final installment in his American Frontier trilogy misses its chance to be something of value.

Taylor Sheridan has made quite a name for himself over the last years. While his stints on screen in acclaimed shows like Sons of Anarchy may have garnered him a little attention now and then, it is his work behind the screen that has elevated him to the status of a serious Hollywood player. Screenwriters tend not to be among the most visible and celebrated cogs of the Hollywood machine, and maybe it took Sheridan’s parallel career as an actor to establish him as such, but establish him it did. Between Sicario, Hell or High Water, and now the last in his American Frontier trilogy, Wind River, Sheridan has succeeded in carving out a much coveted niche for himself: the celebrated screenwriter.

Undoubtedly, turning his screenplays into films that are released globally takes a lot of effort and time and like many screenwriters one would guess that most of his attempts have failed, but the tide may be turning for Sheridan.

It also helps that Wind River is a project he not only wrote but also directed, giving Sheridan the potential of becoming a different kind of triple threat.

The title of the film comes from the place it is set, the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Local hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is out in the wilderness, tasked with shooting predators who are threatening the locals’ cattle. As he follows the animals’ tracks he comes across the footprints of a human and stumbles on the body of a Native American girl, Natalie (Kelsey Asbille). She isn’t a stranger to Cory, in fact she was his teenage daughter’s best friend and her recent death mirrors his daughter’s. So when FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), fresh out of training, shows up to investigate and asks him to assist her, he doesn’t hesitate.

Sheridan is careful not to have Jane be an outside force that whirls into people’s lives and wreaks havoc. It has already happened with Natalie’s death and while Jane insists on asking questions that are uncomfortable and doesn’t always accept a lack of answers, she isn’t immune to the family’s pain and manages not to repeat the known trope of unfeeling law enforcement agent.

With the help of Cory and tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) she begins to investigate what happened in the hours leading up to Natalie’s death.

As a director Sheridan is confident. He shows the snow-covered hills of the reservation as a place of bleakness, a place that time and the world has forgotten. The people on the reservation are poor, young men expect to go to prison. Sheridan manages to integrate this tragic reality into his central narrative without being melodramatic or attempting to manipulate the audience. It is the terrible reality people on the reservation face and he seems to sense that it is not his place to offer a heroic solution.

Sheridan is far from the first white man to tell a story set among Native Americans. But as time has gone on underrepresented people have become more vocal about their stories being told by outsiders. Sheridan himself doesn’t shy away from pointing out his position in interviews and there hasn’t been enormous controversy surrounding the film. Maybe it’s because while the film is set on an Indian reservation and the victim whose death is investigated is Native American, Wind River doesn’t feel like a film about Native Americans. The story is set on their land, features Native American characters, and highlights their plight to a certain extent, but at its heart it is still about the white characters. Cory and Jane are the ones who get the most screen time, whose emotional pain is shown and investigated more than any other. Maybe it is because Sheridan knows this is the only story he can tell truthfully, maybe it is because the sad truth is that it is still impossible to get a film made without white leads.

In the end this is what stops Wind River from being as memorable as its two prequels. Sheridan has to focus on the actual event of Natalie’s death and less on the surrounding factors, on her family, on the hopelessness that permeates Wind River like an invisible sickness. Sheridan’s strength is to tell a story that is seemingly straightforward but quickly turns out to be muddled, to play out on an emotional, small level of a single person, then resonates outward. Wind River never gets to that point. 

He also misses out on the opportunity to subvert his lack of emotional intimacy with his setting. His film is carried by a white man, Cory, who is the best tracker around and has lived close to the reservation for years, having been married to a Native American woman whose family still resides there. Only once is his personal type of appropriation addressed. Sitting in the back of a police car with Natalie’s brother, he says that “this land is all we got left.” It takes the devastated, addicted young man to point out to Cory that he’s white, and none of this land is his. But Cory doesn’t react to it, doesn’t seem to register the truth in the man’s words and it is never brought up again. It is frustrating to see that Sheridan clearly thought about these implications but didn’t investigate them further.

His American Frontier trilogy always benefited from having landscape not be a mere setting but a character, a threat and a personality that looms over the humans, who feel so small and inconsequential against the vast expanse of desert in Sicario and Hell or High Water, and the snow covered mountains of Wyoming in Wind River (though shot in Utah). Sheridan manages to convey both the bleak ugliness of a place seemingly devoid of future, and a place of breathtaking beauty. It isn’t an accident that when Cory seeks retribution on Natalie’s behalf he does so on top of the highest mountain, surrounded by white peaks, beneath glorious sunshine. The juxtaposition of beautiful wilderness and human violence in this instance may feel a little more dramatic and artificial than Sheridan usually makes it out to be but there’s a harsh poetry to it that fits both the character and the story.

And Sheridan never glorifies violence. He waits until the very last moment to confront you with it, and though it can be gruesome, it is never for the mere sake of gore but to show you the brutal reality of what humans are capable of doing to each other. Whereas Tarantino’s violence is brutal and fetishized, Sheridan’s is brutal but objective, neither depicted as aesthetic, nor downplayed to a footnote. It is the kind of violence that makes it hard not to avert your eyes and especially in Wind River, when the inevitable is finally shown, it is almost unbearable.

Wind River is not the strongest of Sheridan’s American Frontier trilogy but it manages to establish him as a solid director. And while it is not really his place as a white man to tell Native American stories, the general lack thereof cannot help but make you wish that he had at least offered his Native American characters more of a platform. One can only hope that Wind River may help to make it possible for Native American filmmakers to tell their own stories.

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