Screenwriter and, as of recently, director Taylor Sheridan has carved out a niche for himself making tense crime sagas in various American landscapes, characterised by unflinching depictions of violence, razor sharp writing, Stetsons, and an acute awareness of the systems that breed crime in the USA. The atmosphere and the mood of each film only enhances this feeling of a world separate to any city – in fact in both Hell or High Water and Wind River we never see a city once. Only vague references to them.
His most recent effort, Wind River, focuses in on the isolation and subjugation of Native Americans through the lens of a murder mystery. The film opens with Jeremy Renner’s character Cory Lambert, a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent and trained hunter, discovering the body of Natalie Hanson, a young Native American girl, on the Wind River Native American Reservation in Wyoming. The note that it is ‘based on true events’ seems fairly superfluous for a while, a tag all too readily thrown into murder mysteries to give them a sort of true crime edge.
It’s easy to wonder what the point is right up until the end of the film, when a simple statement in text closes out proceedings, telling us that the FBI has no crime statistic for missing Native American women. All of this could have happened to an unknown number of girls, and it’s ignored. Isolated by law, these Indian reservations are left completely on their own, managed by an independent US Bureau of Indian Affairs – which, in Wind River, is portrayed as somewhat helpless in these cases without proper support. The only support they get is a lone FBI agent, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who is in over her head from the very beginning.
Sheridan’s exploration of this isolation isn’t perfect – Wind River is somewhat problematic in its telling of this story, prolonged scenes of sexual violence in particular threaten to cheapen the message of the film. Regardless, the film still leads to a powerful conclusion, and never loses sight of the Native American characters on the reservation – even though the protagonist is white, he provides the perspective of an outsider to Native American culture that not only has the respect of the community, but is also very aware of the damage that colonialists did by isolating them this way.
Wind River isn’t concerned with creating a satisfying mystery – it’s more concerned with exploring the desolate reserve and the people in it. The film is filled with unpleasant violence and intense grief, using the crime story to show the helplessness felt by those more or less abandoned by the US government. The film forms a relationship between Lambert and Gil Birmingham’s character Martin Hanson, father of the deceased, through their feeling of helplessness over their missing daughters; Lambert showing deep sympathy and at least a vague understanding of why things are the way they are on the reserve. Towards the end of the film another white man, a violent criminal, complains that there’s nothing to do in Wind River – Lambert retorts that it’s the only land the Native Americans there actually have – it’s the only place they can actually call their own. Considering this, it’s somewhat ironic that Lambert spends a lot of the film dressed like a cowboy.
The spectre of Manifest Destiny looms over Wind River, and also over Sheridan’s last film, Hell or High Water, directed by David McKenzie. Gil Birmingham appears again, this time as a half Comanche, half Mexican Texas Ranger named Alberto Parker. In a conversation separate from this character, ‘Comanche’ is translated to ‘enemy of everyone’ – and yet, he’s a law enforcement officer.
His perspective as the descendent of two people’s that often suffer from the prejudice of white Americans, Alberto is uniquely placed to understand the forces that lead to this string of bank robberies – he completes the connection between Hell or High Water and Wind River when he simply spells out to his fellow ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) that a few hundred years ago, the land once owned by his ancestors was taken away from him – and now, the banks have taken that away from the descendants of colonialists.
The robberies are mostly an attempt to reclaim some agency; the brothers are taking their revenge on the system in an ugly way. It works at first due to meticulous planning and a desire to avoid hurting innocents, but they eventually get hurt anyway. That said, they’re not shown to simply be evil people – in fact, quite the opposite, especially in the case of Chris Pine’s Toby. Sheridan’s characters defy stereotypes and pigeonholing; his characters are all funny, flawed and sympathetic – even the other brother, Ben Foster’s abrasive hothead of an ex-convict.
It’s not just a cops and robbers type of deal – in fact the back story of the bank robbers is deemed more important than that of the law officers. The brothers grew up in poverty, one is simply just trying to pay his mortgage and child support, the other is lashing out at a system that has failed him – labelling himself a ‘Comanche’ at one point. The brothers are both hitting back at the US institutions that have ignored their struggle.
In Sheridan’s films the lawmen, protagonists and otherwise, are far from heroic, sacred, or even effective for that matter. In Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River traditional visions of justice are malfunctioned – there’s no jail for anyone, mainly just death. The system either falters entirely or is twisted somehow. Policing agencies end up powerless at best, corrupt and murderous at the worst.
Hell Or High Water illustrates this by turning every witness the two rangers meet into roadblocks, all too happy to stick it to the institutions that hung them out to dry. In particular, a diner waitress that received a generous tip comprised of stolen money from one of the robbers. When asked to give up the money, she cites having to keep a roof over her daughter’s head. Other witnesses comment on the joy they feel at the banks being robbed, having been robbed by them for decades. Sicario emphasises this by turning the US government into criminals and murderers at the highest level, Emily Blunt’s protagonist agent helpless to stop what’s unfolding in front of her. Wind River shows this by just leaving the main characters on their own, a small and fragile force of law.
Taylor Sheridan’s crime odysseys have, so far, acted as witty, tense insights into the various desolate spaces of the American countryside and the people residing in them. The crime stories themselves are mainly a backdrop, a window into the lives of the ignored and the disenfranchised, across race and social class. Despite the violence and horror, there’s a deep humanity running through his work; an understanding of and interest in people that mostly just go ignored.