Taylor Sheridan, the actor-turned-screenwriter best known for penning Sicario and Hell or High Water, takes a shot at directing with a thematic sequel to the aforementioned films. Wind River, which enjoyed critical acclaim upon its premiere during last January’s Sundance Film Festival, is a straight-forward crime thriller which aims to shed light on rampant poverty and indifference towards minority life on a Native American reservation in Wyoming. Sheridan has clearly taken notes from directors he’s worked with, primarily Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie and, based on the performances he’s solicited (and his time as an actor), he’s soon to be an actor’s director. His directorial debut isn’t as refined as Villeneuve or Mackenzie, but Sheridan is competent and confident as he crafts a serious (and violent) feature with serious subject matter.

As proof of Sheridan’s actor-friendly direction, we can look no further than Wind River’s star, Jeremy Renner. Renner gave audiences his potential in previous works like The Hurt Locker and The Town (both of which earned him Oscar nominations), but the past few years has him shooting arrows as a superhero second-stringer. His quiet, understated turn as U.S. Fish and Wildlife service agent Cory Lambert is as powerful as they come. Complete with a cowboy hat, Cory is a modern-day cowboy who knows the Wind River reservation in freezing Wyoming better than anyone. While hunting for a lion attacking local livestock, Cory comes across the dead body of a Native American teenage female, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille). The sight is already gruesome, but Cory knows Natalie - she’s the friend of his own daughter, who also died under similar circumstances. This adds depth to Cory’s life, and his dark backstory only gets darker.

Murders which occur on reservations are considered federal crimes, so in comes Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a wet-behind-the-ears agent who is idealistic yet out of her depth. She enlists Cory to help her, and they are accompanied by the reservation’s charismatic sheriff Ben (played flawlessly by Graham Greene) to find answers. From there Sheridan takes audiences on a tour of an America many would rather forget. Drug use and unemployment are high, and the locals are reluctant to speak to Jane since she’s both an outsider and a government official. Sheridan could’ve easily gone the obvious route with those observations, and in some ways he did since there’s one lasting image of an American flag hung upside down. But he kept things simple and focused mainly on his characters and their stories in relation to Natalie’s chilling death.

Wind River isn’t a film viewers should watch for entertainment value. It is a more of a socio-economic commentary stuffed into a tense character-driven crime thriller. With a score that taunts (courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) and sweeping cinematography (Ben Richardson, Beasts of the Southern Wild), Wind River is knee-deep in the American frontier and isn’t far off from the contemporary western brought forth in both Sicario and Hell or High Water (another thematic similarity). Besides hinting at the poverty of Middle America, Sheridan has quietly placed within his 111-minute indie revenge themes, and it plays out with powerful results.

With the summer winding down, it seems August is the early battleground for serious award-worthy fare. Wind River has an outside shot at some end of the year accolades, although there are small flaws in its armor. But Sheridan is a director to watch – with a little time and experience he’ll be able to round out his direction and discover his own style. His latest work is very good, and honestly I loved this film, but you can tell he’s trying to emulate other directors rather than create his own style. For a debut directorial effort, that’s mighty fine, but hopefully he’ll come into his own with future projects.

4 stars out of 5

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