Courtesy Acacia Entertainment

‘Wind River’ Is a Very Talky Western

Taylor Sheridan’s new film is chock full of dialogue, but that’s also one of its biggest assets.

I’m not sure when the phrase “the dialogue sounds written” became a put-down when we talk about movies. It’s good that people are hip to cinema as a visual medium and all, but smart, sculpted dialogue—from Shakespeare to Billy Wilder—is something to celebrate. In a movie age when words are meant to sound improvised by the actors (and often are), Taylor Sheridan’s talk is crafted to a degree that sometimes rings theatrical by comparison. Sheridan copped a well-justified Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination last year for Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western rife with carefully shaped, literate dialogue. You bet the dialogue sounds “written.” For this we give thanks.

A well-traveled actor before his writing breakthrough on Sicario (2015), Sheridan obviously understands the kind of material with which actors make hay: revelations, confessions, pauses, subtle shifts in power. Sicario and Hell or High Water were ably directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively, but Sheridan directs his own material in the new film Wind River, which premiered at SIFF earlier this year. Once again the mythology of the Western is in play, and this time the social-issue component (indifference to the fate of young Native American women) is urgent. The mood is unlike Hell or High Water, though. Instead of an expansive Texas landscape that lends itself to colorful good ol’ boys and a certain amount of peckerwood humor, here we’re on a Wyoming Indian Reservation in the dead of winter. It’s too cold to crack jokes here, and nobody wants to anyway.

The mysterious opening sequence has a young woman running barefoot across the snow at night, the moon casting a freezing light on a fatal journey. This death brings together an investigative team: a game tracker, Cory (Jeremy Renner), who discovers the body while hunting some mountain lions; an FBI agent, Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), abruptly transferred from duty in Las Vegas; and the reservation sheriff, Ben (Dances with Wolves stalwart Graham Greene, who capably supplies what dry humor there is). Sheridan doesn’t work especially hard to create a whodunit puzzle, or even provide distractions from the fairly straight-ahead investigation. (Nor does he provide a romance between the divorced Cory and the capable but out-of-place Jane—another thing to be thankful for.)

The film is after bigger game. We follow the plot the way Cory follows tracks in the snow, but the real subject is despair on the reservation and harshness in the wilderness. This is a heavy movie—never more so than the perhaps-too-convenient way Cory’s tragic personal history coincides with the backstory of the murder. Cory shares a grim bond with the victim’s father, a Native man worn out by injustice. He’s played by Gil Birmingham, the actor who stole scenes as Jeff Bridges’ deputy in Hell or High Water. Birmingham looks very different in Wind River, but his rapport with Renner (strong here in a way he never gets to be in the Avengers pictures) affirms Sheridan’s talent for writing complicated male relationships.

I will admit that I did sometimes have the feeling of listening to a play rather than watching a movie—for a story set in an allegedly taciturn part of America, this movie sure is talky. Perhaps Sicario and Hell or High Water benefited from directors who know when to let the characters go silent. The film also takes the curious gambit of plunging us into a complicated standoff—very compellingly staged—without sorting out exactly who all these twitchy, gun-toting people are. This is an especially glaring flaw when one of Sheridan’s talents is quickly but vividly sketching small roles; these include a coroner (Eric Lange) with a precise argument about “cause of death” (it doesn’t sound compelling, but it is), and a Native woman (the mighty Tantoo Cardinal) dubiously helping Jane try on the dead girl’s clothes. Add the frosty location work and an unusual score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Wind River presents a gratifyingly solid movie for grown-ups. And oh yes—there’s dialogue here that will haunt your mind for days to come, as good words should.

Wind River. Rated R. Opens Fri., Aug 11 at various theaters.

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Buster Scruggs. Photo courtesy Netflix
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Is a Wagon Train of Dark Mischief

The Coen brothers’ new anthology seves as a glorious ode to Westerns’ dusty death.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in ‘Widows.’ Photo by Merrick Morton
Crime Doesn’t Pay Off in ‘Widows’

Steve McQueen’s feminist heist thriller stretches itself far too thin.

At times, the actors in Outlaw King are hard to tell apart under the mud, furs, 
and filthy mullets. Courtesy Netflix
Coming for the Throne

‘Outlaw King,’ the Chris Pine-led 14th century epic about the First War of Scottish Independence, signals Netflix’s attempt to conquer the Oscars.

Big-screen Queen via Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Not Quite A Killer Queen

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ hits some musical high notes, but the Queen biopic largely plays it too safe.

Screaming and Streaming

A selection of the best horror movies you can stream at home this Halloween.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) returns to once again square off with Michael Myers in the new ‘Halloween.’ Photo by Ryan Green/Universal Studios
Still Killin’ It

Michael Myers has been coming home for decades now, ever since he… Continue reading

Trailer Park Blues

Megan Griffiths’s Sadie taps into the dark side of teenage angst through Sophia Mitri Schloss’s strong lead performance.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are beacons of light in <em>Rafiki</em>. Image courtesy Film Movement
Getting It Twisted

What to watch for at this year’s edition of Twist: A Queer Film Festival.

Ryan Gosling blasts off as Neil Armstrong in First Man. Photo by Daniel McFadden
Sea of Tranquility

In Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man,’ Ryan Gosling delivers a fascinating blank slate portrayal of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as star-crossed lovers. Photo by Neal Preston
Not the Brightest Star in the Sky

Lady Gaga shines in the otherwise underwhelming ‘A Star Is Born.’

First-time actor Ben Dickey (with guitar) stars as the titular country songwriter Blaze Foley. Courtesy IFC Films
Down in a ‘Blaze’ of Glory

Writer/director Ethan Hawke aptly portrays Blaze Foley’s never-made-it musical legend.

Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, and Jack Black get their kiddie horror on in The House 
With a Clock in Its Walls. Photo courtesy Storyteller Distribution Co.
Tick, Tick… Boo!

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett can’t prevent the spooky kids’ movie The House with a Clock in Its Walls from feeling a bit insincere.