This stunning debut from screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is among the best films of the festival, and the year, too.
In two short years, American scribe Taylor Sheridan has emerged as one of the most exciting authors in postmodern film. His stories have dimension, weight, and potency; rendering layered characters inside environments with reflective personality. This year, he takes a turn behind the lens, showcasing his debut feature film, Wind River, as part of Cannes’ illustrious Un Certain Regard competition strand. The single English-language title in contention, Sheridan’s inaugural work – a sleepy, Nordic Noir-inspired crime thriller – is also in the running for the Camera d’Or; perhaps the festival’s most overlooked, yet vital plaudit.
A work of such immaculate completion and design, Sheridan establishes himself as the purest of filmmakers – a craftsman whose creative dexterity shines radiantly across every snow-soaked frame. Wind River is astonishing cinema; thrilling, insightful, pertinent. There’s been a handful of delicious treats upon the Croisette this year, and this is among the sweetest. Jeremy Renner stars as Cory Lambert, a local hunter and marksman, hired by the townspeople and law enforcement to rid the predatory wildlife which prowls upon the wintery plains of Wind River. The titular location is part of the Native American Reserve, and is stationed in the silent foothills of the Wyoming mountains.
Upon routine inspection, he discovers the frostbitten corpse of a teenage girl. She is without footwear; blood frozen to the bone, and has left a stream of tracks in the chilly quilt. This peculiar detail sets off alarm bells, and soon the FBI are called to the desolate scene. Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is the closest operative in the vicinity – a far cry from the neon gleam of her Las Vegas residency. She is scrambled into play, having to adjust to benign jurisdictions here in the remote wilderness, and indeed the dramatic shift in temperature. She appoints Cory as her assistant in solving the mysterious crime, utilising his unique skillset and knowledge base to discover the truth.
There are many fascinating and impressive elements within Sheridan’s nuanced yet enthralling odyssey, but perhaps its trump card is the landscape. Wind River is more than a place, more than a setting; it is an entity, a community, a key piece in the larger puzzle. This is a film about the environment’s hard indifference towards all who trudge across it – testing their stamina and will with each sharp drawn of breath. As expected, his screenplay is spectacular; an inquisitive, intricately patterned drama, sketched in tightly wound exchanges, and coloured with thunderous altercations. For a feature of methodical intent – impressively patient given its style – pacing feels breakneck. The supple 100 minute duration simply flies by, dashing through as fast as the many snowmobiles which groan in the blistering cold.
Aesthetically, this is a surefire contender for success at the Closing Ceremony on Sunday. Sheridan composes a frame with opulent beauty, and contrasting earthy vigour. Wind River enriches with a cavalcade of film language, brilliantly interspersed across its multi-ligual tones and genre framing. The slight number of set pieces are breathlessly exciting and always unexpected; bitterly colouring the endless white with lashings of crimson. Equally, he builds expert imagery inside the many intimate sets, such as Cory’s cabin, where firearm paraphernalia is sprinkled upon every surface. Much like the rustic land, all areas of narrative development feel lived in. His world, and his characters, have roamed long before we meet them; both wearing the scars of the past, and hesitations for the future.
Renner delivers a career-best performance as Cory; a tragic, weathered man, whose attachments to the curious murder become profoundly revealed as we press onwards. There is little doubt that he is worthy of serious awards attention, as is Olsen, who continues to prove her stripes as a generational talent. Her Jane is the perfect fish-out-of-water, before developing into a fiercely determined and controlling official. Together the duo have bespoke chemistry and depth; likely made all-the-richer thanks to their previous pairing in more mainstream cinema. Jon Bernthal and Graham Greene also feature, impressing in their limited roles.
Wind River is a lonely film; one confined to wintery isolation, reinforced with sombre resonance. It is also an utterly magnificent and unforgettable one, which proves Sheridan as one hell of a director. The chill here is harsh, but the journey is just exquisite.