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.