The classic western, headed off at the pass
With ‘Wind River,’ first-time director Taylor Sheridan continues to smash stereotypes and reinvent a saddle-weary genre
The classic American western is an endangered species.
You’re more likely to find a meta-movie that comments on the near-extinction of the genre — such as “The Hero,” in which former cowboy actor Sam Elliott plays a former cowboy actor — than you are to come across a rootin’-tootin’ example of what is sometimes known as the leathers-and-feathers genre. How long has it been since the Coen brothers’ remake of “True Grit”? Seven long years. And 2015’s “The Revenant” feels like something of a fluke.
And yet, since making his screenwriting debut with “Sicario,” actor-turned-filmmaker Taylor Sheridan has almost single-handedly reinvented the moribund art form, cranking out one contemporary cowboy parable after another. Set on the frontier of the drug war between the United States and Mexico, that 2015 film was followed up by last year’s “Hell or High Water,” a bank robbery shoot-’em-up set against the backdrop of a West Texas landscape still devastated from the 2008 financial crisis. Both Oscar-nominated films explore classic western themes of morality and frontier justice: reward and punishment that sometimes fall outside the letter of the law, yet within a strict code of honor.
Both also deal with the idea of conflict and cooperation between the white man and the Other (whether that means the Native American, in the case of “Hell,” or, in the case of “Sicario,” the Mexican).
Sheridan’s latest film — and his impressive directorial debut — is “Wind River,” a loosely fact-based thriller about the investigation of the murder of a Native American teenage girl on Wyoming’s Wind River reservation. It reunites Jeremy Renner, playing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer Cory Lambert, with his co-star from two “Avengers” movies, Elizabeth Olsen, as F.B.I. agent Jane Banner. In many ways, the film interrogates the cliches and caricatures of the cowboys-and-Indians movie, simultaneously acknowledging them even as it knocks them down.
Sheridan, in a phone interview, puts it this way: “I work very hard to line up stereotypes and then smash them with a hammer.”
Cory, for example, is in many ways the paradigm of the lone, laconic gunslinger. Renner, in a separate interview, describes his character as less cowboy than “cowboy-esque” — a man defined not by what he says, but by what he does, in the manner of John Wayne. Sure, Renner says, he might wear a white, wide-brimmed hat, and he doesn’t say much, but he’s a much more sensitive, newfangled version of the familiar heroic archetype: “emotionally soft,” in Renner’s words, but by no means weak — not to mention haunted by his own tragedy.
Practicing what Renner calls a form of cowboy “meditation,” Cory makes his own bullets, hand-loading rifle cartridges with gunpowder at a workbench in his home. It’s not merely a demonstration of his self-reliance, Renner says, but a form of new-age therapy. “We’re not on the Oregon Trail anymore,” he says. “We’re on Twitter and Jeremy Renner, left, and Gil Birmingham star in “Wind River,” about the investigation of the killing of a Native American teenage girl. Instagram.”
Olsen says she sees Jane — a Fort Lauderdale-based Fed on temporary assignment to the Southwest — as a takeoff on another old trope: the new sheriff in town. Not only is she a woman in a man’s world, she’s also a Caucasian who is out of her element on the reservation. “Taylor wanted to explore what happens when a white, blond female comes in to solve a crime,” she says. “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I need help. I don’t understand how to navigate this world.”
To be fair, the world of “Wind River” is an especially complicated one, with Cory working side-by side with the tribal police chief (Graham Greene), while also encountering friction — and outright hostility — when he and Jane show up at a squalid shack belonging to several drug-addicted Native suspects. The movie might not present a flattering portrait of reservation life, but, as Sheridan
points out, who would want that?
“Sugarcoating doesn’t do anybody any good,” he says of the film’s frank portrayal of Native American struggles. “It’s not vilifying Native Americans to show issues with substance abuse. Those very issues, in different ways, strike at the very core of all people under emotional and financial pressure. They exist in every class and culture.”
In Sheridan’s view, that sometimes brutal honesty doesn’t fly in the face of the film’s appeal, but, rather, explains its it — especially with the Native American community. “Wind River” was, in large part, made possible by an investment from the Tunica-Biloxi Economic Development Corp., a Louisiana-based tribal business that operates Native American gambling casinos, and that was looking for opportunities to invest in films that raise awareness about Native American culture, warts and all.
“Out of the blue, we got a call from the Tunica-Biloxi tribe,” Taylor says, recalling the 2015 conversation he had with a tribal representative. “I’d been on the call for 20 minutes, and they suddenly said, ‘Wait a minute — you’re not Native American?’ ‘No, bro,’ I said. ‘I’m Irish.’ ”
Sheridan attributes his ear for what he calls the “vernacular” rhythms of Native American speech, behavior and life to his West Texas upbringing. Although there are few Indians left in his home state — they’ve all been forcibly relocated to Oklahoma — the time Sheridan spent visiting friends on various reservations has convinced him that, thanks to years of cohabitation and cross-pollination — and, yes, conflict — there are now as many similarities as differences between today’s cowboys and Indians.
In the film, for example, Cory’s ex-wife is Arapaho, and they have a son together.
But the tale of the evolving relationship between the white man and the Native American is nowhere better illustrated, according to Sheridan, than in one of “Wind River’s” final scenes. In it, Cory and the murdered girl’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham, with face painted), are sitting next to each other on the ground, each of the men having experienced profound loss.
“You’ve got the guy with the cowboy hat sitting next to the guy with his face painted,” Sheridan says, “and the scene starts with Cory saying, “What’s with the paint?’ Martin tells him: ‘It’s my death face.’ ‘And how do you know what that is?’ asks Cory. Martin is like, ‘I don’t. I just made it up.’ ”
That conversation, Sheridan says, encapsulates so much that is true and contradictory about the modern west: not just its stubbornly lingering cliches, but the sense that something is, inevitably, slipping away.
“Right there,” Sheridan says, metaphorical hammer in hand, “I just wreck it.”
Wind River (R, 107 minutes). Opens Friday at area theaters.
Director Taylor Sheridan on the set of “Wind River,” his first movie as a director. Sheridan previously wrote screenplays for two other modern takes on the traditional western.