Thursday 14 September 2017

White saviours ahoy! Wind River is a pacy, atmospheric thriller... with one big problem

An ill Wind: Olsen and Renner team up to find the killer of a teenage girl

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful WWW - Worthwhile WW - Watchable W - Woeful

Please note: This review contains spoilers

Wind River
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene           
Running time: 107mins

Hollywood never learns, does it? In Monday's Your Week In Film column, I drew attention to the critical shellacking received by Sean Penn's The Last Face, a movie set during Liberia's second civil war that relegated every African character in it to the status of an extra, while Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem got on with the important work of falling in love and saving the world. Taylor Sheridan's Wind River commits a similar - although not quite so egregious - crime. Set on a Native American reservation in Wyoming, it sees Jeremy Renner's professional hunter helping Elizabeth Olsen's fish-out-of-water FBI agent investigate the rape and murder of a young woman. Alas, the Native American characters are little more than bit-part players and victims. Could a leading role not have been written for a Native American actor? Yes, Graham Greene's reservation police chief has quite a few lines but most of them are expository and he doesn't make it to the end of the film, something Renner and Olsen's characters barely acknowledge. It's the 21st Century and high time this 'white saviour' nonsense was put out to pasture for good.

It's a shame because, if you can forgive such an entirely avoidable misstep, Wind River is an effective, atmospheric thriller that makes excellent use of its vast, snowbound setting and boasts a fine central performance from Renner. I've always been something of a sceptic when it comes to The Hurt Locker's Oscar nominee, and god knows his awful TV ad for BT didn't help ("That was cool, right?). But he's entirely convincing here as Cory Lambert, a grieving father and all-round badass outdoorsman. When he turns down the Hawkeye cockiness a few notches, Renner's a compelling, empathetic actor. Despite his all-action hunting/shooting/tracking persona, you feel the weight of Lambert's melancholy every step of the way, none more so than when he shares the story of his daughter's death, three years before, with Olsen. In fact, a mournful air hangs over the entire movie, something only enhanced by the stillness of the Wyoming fastness (brought to vivid life by Ben Richardson's photography) and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's elegiac score.

Snowed in: Director Sheridan makes the most of Wyoming's icy landscape

Olsen is a little lower in the mix (this is very much Renner's film) and her FBI agent Jane Banner is nothing we haven't seen before. Na├»ve but feisty - check. Butting heads with a culture she doesn't understand - check. Scared, but refusing to give in to her fear - check. Almost certainly attracted to the hunky but emotionally scarred lead character - check. Despite Banner's limitations, it's a solid performance from Renner's The Avengers co-star but I'm beginning to wonder when she'll once again hit the heights of 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene. In truth, writing women is far from Sheridan's strongest suit. Apart from a couple of walk-on parts – Margaret Bowman's fantastically crotchety T-Bone waitress among them – women were mostly missing from Hell Or High Water, while Emily Blunt was ultimately sidelined in Sicario, despite supposedly being the main character. 

Sheridan, who wrote as well as helmed this, does a solid job on his directorial debut, the action scenes nicely staged and suitably kinetic, every one of the big emotional set-pieces perfectly satisfying. I doubt I'm going out on a limb here to suggest Sheridan likes his westerns because their DNA is all over everything he does, whether as a screenwriter or here as both that and director. In Sicario, what is Benicio Del Toro's character if not a variation on one of Clint Eastwood's Men With No Name, riding into town to do the dirty work no one else is capable of? While Hell Or High Water - Texas, Jeff Bridges' cowboy cop, seat-of-your-pants bank hold-ups - speaks for itself. And so it goes in Wind River, with Renner's decent but damaged good guy in one scene riding to Olsen's rescue dressed head to toe in brilliant white (the ultimate white-hat), in between calmly taking out the whimpering one-note villain and bestowing tough-love wisdom on everyone around him, like a touchy-feely John Wayne or Gary Cooper with sensitivity training. The director even gives us a blizzard right out of McCabe & Mrs Miller, although he provides an ending rather more upbeat than the one that brings down the curtain on Robert Altman's 1971 classic. 

Rating: WW½

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