The jury must still be out on Jeremy Renner. He can throw himself off rooftops and onto shop awnings as many times as he likes for a television commercial, but he confused cinemagoers as the lead in The Bourne Legacy. He appeared to be the same character yet wasn’t. The franchise has not regained momentum since then though a staple reissue on late night television. I’m not sure what it did for his career. There may have been resentment from Matt Damon fans.
After he made a terrific impact in The Hurt Locker – for once, an original theme in a film – Renner never quite managing to find a role of the same intensity and emotional range as that film’s gung-ho bomb disposal expert. Perhaps the problem lies in him not having a memorable face or a distinctive voice.
Wild River delivers what the title promises: rugged landscapes, fast rapids, homesteaders fighting the elements, and tough men at one with nature. It has most of those elements, plus Indians and a lot of snow. (Indians dislike the term ‘American’ Indian.)
Ben Richardson’s cinematography is superb, expansive wide shots making full use of the grandeur of the country. Locations are panoramas of snow frozen remote hillsides held firm by fir trees, craggy mountain slopes shouldering hard packed drifts under big skies, Wyoming a beautiful forbidding place even 10 degrees below zero.
It is Taylor Sheridan’s directorial débute. He’s the writer of Sicario, and Hell or High Water, a writer who knows how to take a controversial political issue and cloak it in an action genre to make it palatable, while making his social point. I still regard Hell or High Water as the best written screenplay of the last two years.
Sheridan writes like a poet: “The hardest thing to hunt is truth”, just one standout line among many from a screenplay of maturity for most of its length. Main characters wrestle with moral problems and their own weaknesses. The smallest walk-on role is a fully-rounded human being, Sheridan unafraid to give support characters good speeches.
This screenplay is not his best compared to what we have seen so far. It reads a little like the project he had on his shelf before his first film was produced, one dusted down, polished and fine tuned for his début. That’s confirmed by the small number of cast on display and what seems most everything shot in one valley and its high ridges.
The ‘Wind River’ of the title is an Indian reservation. The story follows the efforts of expert tracker and marksman Cory Lambert, (Jeremy Renner) to assist tenderfoot FBI agent Jane Banner, (Elizabeth Olsen) investigate the death of a local teenage girl.
The rookie female, a Hollywood cliché, is here reprised given a little but not enough substance. Lambert’s normal job is hunting wolf and mountain lion, keeping both away from the herds of cattle and grazing sheep. She works in a city.
Why Lambert chooses to get involved gradually becomes evident in a single harrowing flashback. The shame is, it’s signalled well in advance. As evidence accumulates of one man’s brutality, or a group of men, we realise Lambert is fighting his own demons.
Lambert’s handsome Indian ex-wife also lives on the reservation – a rather too-neat plot connection and one that soon gets lost for no apparent reason. We learn his own daughter was killed, a searing memory that propels his lust for revenge and redemption. (Yes, this is another revenger’s tragedy.) Lambert can empathize with the dead girl’s anguished parents driven to the depths of despair.
The murdered girl is found frozen in the middle of nowhere. What was she doing so far from civilisation? She may have been sexually abused, but more interesting to Lambert, she appears to have been running away from something evil. What was it that terrified her so much that she was prepared to run to her death to escape it? Just before she escapes to the wild she turns to look at her boyfriend knowing she can’t save him, or he himself. Those moments are a Sheridan hallmark.
As with his previous screenplays Sheridan’s grasp of psychology is flawless. None of the major characters put a foot wrong, or say a word that would not come from their mouth. And he is just as comfortable writing about individuals thrown together in the snowy wilds as he is groups herded together in the dry Mexican desert.
I had trouble accepting Renner as the hunter and trapper for his interpretation lacked physical strength. This is a strange contradiction. Clearly, he’s a very physical actor. But he’s an actor that doesn’t take us by surprise. His hunter is serious minded, cool headed, thoughtful, always one step ahead of a potential accident and quick to avoid it. What Renner can do is emote, just enough for us to know that he hurts inside.
For her part, Olsen does her best as ‘Young Beautiful FBI Agent’ with naturally blonde hair. How much better if she’d been a feisty native Indian who’d lost touch with her tribe. The actress comes a cropper when called upon to shout commands in an effort to control a dozen rowdy oil workers. Her voice cracks and she crouches in a curious position just when she needs to show absolute authority.
The local police chief is played by the great Graham Greene, stage, screen and television actor made famous for his bemused Sioux warrior in Dances with Wolves, the role that won him as Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. (He’s a Canadian Indian.)
I’ll let readers into a secret – maybe one to elaborate in my book Lost in La La Land. I offered him a role in a film set in the New Mexico desert as a native Indian guide who’s been too long a gabby Los Angeles bartender. In the story full-blooded Indians living on the local reservation scorn his pseudo-warrior personality. Greene turned it down. He just couldn’t relate to it. I was crushed. I should have invited him to rewrite his lines, he’s that skilled. Mind you, actors are often put off by the director’s choice of cast. They like to work with actors they like and admire. Maybe that was the reason.
Greene has been around Hollywood for a long time, and its clear he’s capable of much more than anything Hollywood has given him in A-List movies. He’s commanded lead roles in small scale films, but it’s plain to see he has ability as yet unexploited.
In Wind River it’s clear his health isn’t what it used to be, but, as theatricals say, he’s a trooper. Sadly, though he’s in most of the scenes, he’s not given any real bacca to chew. His best line is advising the green FBI agent that distances in Wyoming are longer than you think because roads are few and far between. “You have to go fifty miles to do five.” he says to her in preparation for a long roundabout journey to reach a short distance.
In Hell or High Water, Sheridan took familiar archetypes and shook them by the neck with such vigour that the movie took on a profound gravitas. We were intrigued by their antics and interactions: the curmudgeonly sheriff, the bickering deputy, the loving rascally brothers and disappointed wives, even the diner waitress made her mark on our imagination. Their ambitions and flaws melded. We saw them as real people.
Here, archetypes are a means to a banal shoot out that dumps psychology and moral dilemma in one swift scene and goes for the Tarantino exit. Sheridan makes his political point, that native Indians, (like Scots) have been robbed of their birthright, given second best as a sop, but the film isn’t memorable enough, or powerful enough to have you join the struggle for native American rights.
Cave and Ellis’s semi-Indian chants give an impression of native spirituality but here too the music is not as memorable as you’d expect. All the same, the whole enterprise makes for a good police thriller.
As I said, a project probably written before Sheridan’s previous scripts were produced. Wind River is well worth a visit for the Wyoming scenery and a pudgy Graham Greene giving us his world weary police officer.
- Star rating: Three stars
- Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene,
- Director: Taylor Sheridan
- Writer: Taylor Sheridan
- Cinematography: Ben Richardson
- Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
- Rating: R
- Duration: 110 minutes