From the opening moments, we feel the cold.

We sense the bitterness of remote land where low temperatures threaten and isolation defines. We see how people, in a place so desolate, find ways to live and cheat, lie and deceive, attack and hurt. And we wonder how they continue when they lose so much.

As a filmmaker, Taylor Sheridan writes movies about people and places searching for reasons to move forward. In Sicario he creates an FBI agent who must confront her illusions to address the challenges of drug traffic between the U.S. and Mexico. In Hell or High Water the screenwriter introduces a lawman nearing retirement who wants one more chance to make sense of people who steal and kill. And, in Wind River, Sheridan writes and directs a powerful tale of a man who tries to connect the dots when a young woman is murdered on a Native American reservation in a remote part of Wyoming.

With each film, Sheridan takes what some could consider a conventional plot, fills the story with well-developed characters, and uses those characters to bring issues to life. While Sicario is about drugs, it details what people fear. While Hell or High Water traces a crime it explores how people must step outside themselves. And Wind River uses its “who-done-it” framework to examine how social conditions impact choices people make. In his films, Sheridan demonstrates an ability to develop character with minimal dialogue, to create suspense with visual imagery. But what really matters are the emotional layers that people try to resolve and the tragedies they hope to overcome.

In Wind River, Sheridan fills his conventional plot with buckets of bad behavior. Jeremy Renner plays a tracker with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who stumbles upon a dead body. When local law enforcement officers reach out to the FBI, the inexperienced agent assigned to case asks for help to figure out what happened. Renner volunteers. But there’s more to his curiosity than Sheridan immediately reveals and the set-up, as simple as it may sound, only suggests what the movie will become. The moviemaker fills his landscape with layers of tension, miles of history, droves of reasons people might harm each other, and a good dose of surprise to keep us guessing. Never do we find ourselves trapped in the obvious or frustrated by detours. Sheridan knows what movie he wants to make and lets nothing get in his way.

For Renner, Wind River offers a chance to develop a multi-layered performance without competing with the film’s visual palette. This actor, who suggests as much as he expresses, captures the isolation of the man without seeking artificial sympathy. The character and the actor are realists. We see a man who may have failed as a husband, tries to succeed as a father, and wants to be what his community needs. Renner becomes the conscience of the investigation as well as the world Sheridan creates. And he makes us want to learn more about a man who carefully protects his soul.

Wind River confirms how Sheridan can write a compelling story without introducing the unnecessary and film that story with clean visuals that never fight the narrative. And, because the film reveals more than we initially see, Sheridan reminds us how surprising a moviemaker he can be, too.

“Film Nutritional Value”: Wind River

  • Content: High. Moviemaker Taylor Sheridan creates a fascinating look at how people in remote places consider the choices they can make.
  • Entertainment: High. What a welcome relief to absorb a thoughtful, meaningful film after a year filled with superficial entertainments.
  • Message: High. While absorbing as a film, Wind River has a lot to say about the power of the environment to influence how people choose.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with our older children about how we confront the realities of our environment is time well spent.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, take time for a conversation about how they make choices in their lives.

(Wind River is rated R for strong violence, disturbing images and language. 5 Popcorn Buckets. The film runs 1 hour, 47 minutes.)

Read more about the films of Taylor Sheridan in the Reel Dad, Arts and Leisure, below.

Hell or High Water: Taylor Sheridan’s tale of humanity

by Mark Schumann

The Reel Dad

Taylor Sheridan knows people.

In his new film, Wind River, he explores a how connects the sadness of his past to the challenges of his present. This reminds us how, in Hell or High Water, Sheridan introduces a man looking at the future with the wisdom of awareness and the disappointment of routine.

As in Sheridan’s new film, the fascinating Hell or High Water is essentially a character study set within a thriller framework. Oscar winner Jeff Bridges delivers a complex view of the disappointments that aging can bring. His portrayal of a Texas Ranger nearing retirement reveals all the anxiety and aspiration that change can create. With minimal dialogue and maximum expression, Bridges reaches back for more than 45 years of lessons from the screen to bring this man to life. The actor uses his distinctive voice and memorable manner to make us believe in the value of wisdom. As he wanders the ways to make one last difference, he considers the paths not pursued over all the repetitive years. He knows, too well, that time is his most valued currency. And he is running low.

There is, in fact, a lot that is wise and smart about this film. Using a framework that could be familiar – of two brothers who rob banks in small towns – director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan create a compelling look at what drives people to change, protect, wonder and resist. On one level, this tale of low-tech crime resembles moments of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, also about unsavory souls in rural West Texas. While the Coens examine what leads people to embrace greed, Mackenzie and Sheridan search for the positive in people who insist on doing the wrong things for the right reasons. As the brothers Tanner and Toby plan and execute a compelling crime spree through small banks in little towns, they use their good intentions to fuel their criminal actions. Though they don’t spend a lot of time explaining their reasons to themselves, they do believe there is a higher purpose at work no matter how low the work can be.

Only when they pursued by the equally driven Marcus – perfectly played by Bridges in another Oscar-worthy turn – do the brothers find themselves at odds with their actions. As the filmmakers track these people operating in different worlds, we see how the pressure can bring out the worst in the good, and the best in the bad. While we find ourselves rooting for the bad guys, at moments, we also know that movies rarely let them win. Sheridan and Mackenzie wisely play with what we expect, in the movies we see, the heroes we embrace, and the ideals we absorb. They make us wonder how far we would go to protect those we love and our own destiny.

After a year of dismal sequels and reboots, watching a mature film filled with complex ideas was a real movie delight. And, fortunately, Academy voters appreciated the film’s strengths. Hopefully, Wind River will be remembered as well. How marvelous in a business where movies with small ideas keep getting bigger that filmmakers as creative as Sheridan can steer such rich films to the screen. His work makes us hope that someone in Hollywood will continue to pay attention to what demanding audiences want to see.

(Hell or High Water is rated R for violence, language throughout and brief sexuality. The film runs 1 hour, 42 minutes.)