The Neo-Western In Winter: Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River (2017) – Blu-ray review
Sheridan stakes his claim as Hollywood’s greatest maker of neo-Westerns, adding directorial chops to his sharp-shooting skills as a screenwriter.
(Taylor Sheridan, 2017)
Making a Western in the 21st Century is hard – so all credit to Taylor Sheridan for successfully writing three in a row. Following Sicario and Hell Or High Water, Wind River sees the former actor directing as well, making it clear that this hot streak is no fluke. Sheridan’s trilogy of thrillers all invoke the iconography of the American West, but their crime-inflected narratives all revolve around a realist treatment of race, bigotry and poverty.
There’s a danger in Sheridan’s cinema of laying it on too thick. It was true of Hell Or High Water, with its blunt symbolism of home repossession billboards, and in Wind River it’s present in the solemn talk of suffering, and the elevation of Native American experience into a kind of mythic martyrdom. “What’s all this talk of ‘we’?” Jeremy Renner’s scout, Cory, is asked about his allegiance to his adopted people – and Wind River skirts close to being the tourist porn of a white director touring the reservation.
Yet it’s the sincerity of Sheridan’s eye that distinguishes the film. He films with restraint, often from a distance – the viewpoint of a hunter, of course, but also of someone who knows he can’t clumsily bring his camera into the action via hand-held verité. It’s there in the bold decision to frame the story from Cory’s perspective, rather than the rookie FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen) sent into this strange new world. That would be a cliché but Sheridan’s vantage point is deliberately placed on the ethnic faultline, all the better to ask troubling questions.
So the film becomes a snapshot of an embattled culture, facing precious few options – college, the military or drug-fuelled apathy – while all the while seeing the land (nominally, the last thing it owns) usurped by capitalists and their paid lackeys. The lack of respect, the barely-hidden racism and misogyny, is everywhere, and when Cory paints a picture of their being only survivors, not winners or losers, in his world, does he even know that he’s got several advantages over his friends and colleagues?
These questions are framed in a startling piece of drama whose slow-burn tension periodically erupts into sudden violence. Sheridan has clearly learnt well from seeing how Denis Villeneuve and David McKenzie handled his work, but he brings several inventions of his own, notably a remarkable, clever transition into a flashback. But more than the earlier films, there’s the sense of Sheridan’s background in the performances. Renner’s impressive work as Cory, for whom the latest case cracks open his own grief into a haunted, stoic calm, recalls his career-defining role in The Hurt Locker. And Hell Or High Water’s Gil Birmingham returns to prove that he’s the ideal muse for Sheridan’s wistful update of Western tropes.
Wind River is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand.