Taylor Sheridan's 'Wind River' is a Blistering Expose of Violence Against Native American Women

Taylor Sheridan
Taylor Sheridan, with Jeremy Renner (behind him), directing a scene from 'Wind River,' set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Fred Hayes/The Weinstein Company

In the final moments of the film Hell or High Water, Sheriff Marcus Hamilton, played by Jeff Bridges, visits one of the brothers responsible for a string of bank robberies in several small, struggling towns of West Texas. After taking stock of what those acts have cost in lives, as well as what they have yielded for the brother and his family, Bridges chuckles: "The things we do for our kids, huh?"

The screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, has a way with a wryly humorous and understated line. He came late to writing, but he came at it hard. The film Hell or High Water, only the second script he has written, was nominated for several Oscars, including best original screenplay (it was also 2016's highest-grossing indie). His first script, Sicario, another critical and commercial smash, came out the year before. Sheridan's latest, Wind River, he got to direct himself.

A loosely linked trilogy, the three films, all located in the modern American West, hold up a mirror to some very bad shit: Sicario centers on the militarization of the drug war in southern Arizona; Hell or High Water highlights the latest chapter in the multigenerational story of West Texas poverty, this one sparked by predatory loans; Wind River addresses violence against Native American women on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, a place of near-impossible conditions, natural and otherwise. "The films explore how much and how little has changed since the American West was settled," says Sheridan, "as well as the consequence of that settlement." The reservations, he adds, are the most tangible remnant of that, as well as "our country's greatest shame."

Thrillers—heavy on action and violence, lightly dusted with conscience—are Sheridan's sweet spot. If there are heroes in these stories, they're at the discretion of the audience; even the men and women in white hats sometimes get results in morally ambiguous ways. Hell or High Water's good sheriff is a casual racist, and the antihero most people root for, played by Chris Pine, is "a 40-year-old fuck-up who finally realized that his kids were growing up to be just like him, because he'd given them no alternative," says Sheridan. "He's not a Robin Hood. He's not altruistic." Many people, though, can relate to his hatred of banks and house foreclosures, no matter that the mess he's in is largely self-created.

"There's not a lot of pure evil in the world, but it's amazing how little it takes to do great damage," says Sheridan. "Most of us don't confront pure anything. What our life does involve is a whole lot of 60/40 and 70/30. Bad people sometimes do good things, and good people do really bad things, or do something the audience disagrees with. I can't wait for PETA to get on me about what Cory Lambert's job is."

Wind River's Lambert, played by Jeremy Renner, is an animal tracker who shoots the coyotes and mountain lions that kill stock. "It's a real job. Don't bitch at me if you don't like it," Sheridan chides his imagined critics at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "I didn't romanticize the job, and I didn't demonize it."

As with his previous scripts, Wind River highlights a preoccupation of Sheridan's: the stressors that tear family structures apart, like drug wars or reverse mortgages or entrenched racist laws. Each of his stories features a father who will do anything to make up for, as he sees it, failing his family. Lambert is enlisted by a rookie FBI agent, played by Elizabeth Olsen, to investigate the rape and murder of a young woman on the Wind River Reservation. Lambert used to live there with his Native wife; they split up over the apparent death of their eldest child, a teenage daughter who disappeared three years before the film begins. "With Wind River, I became fascinated with the notion of how you overcome a tragedy—accepting it, making whatever peace you can with it, without ever knowing what really happened," says Sheridan. "I wanted to watch someone go through that struggle."

Wind River
Elizabeth Olsen plays an FBI agent who enlists the help of Jeremy Renner's tracker. Fred Hayes/The Weinstein Company

Likewise, he wanted to explore a subject that is largely ignored. "The social issues that Native Americans face are the same as in other parts of the country—domestic abuse, poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism—but on the reservation, no one is watching or listening," he says. Most chillingly, rape—by Native and non-Native men—has become a rite of passage for adolescent girls, some of whom simply disappear. A note at the end of the film reads, "While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women." Sheridan had hoped to include an exact number. "I had two attorneys spend three months trying to get that statistic. But no one knows how many are missing."

Until 2013, he adds, "sexual assault of a Native woman by a non-Native couldn't be prosecuted because it was a state crime on federal land. At the same time, if you were a Native accused of assaulting a non-Native, you could be prosecuted twice, once by the federal government and once by the tribal police. It was a double standard of medieval proportions."

Sheridan doesn't want to, nor can he, offer solutions. "That's not my job," he says. "I can only pose the questions. Who wants to spend $15 on ticket and be preached to? I can't stand that." But he can suggest the only option for most people: the power of personal choice, of "how we conduct ourselves within our reality." As Lambert says of the rez at one point, "There's no luck here, just survivors." For Sheridan, the mutable idea of heroism rests between responsibility and empathy.

Sheridan's dialogue shares the pleasurable, easy lope of Larry McMurtry, who has written evocatively of the West's past and present. They both grew up on ranches in West Texas, and each had to leave to find his way—Sheridan to Hollywood, where he spent 20 years as a journeyman actor, most famously playing a cop on the TV Series Sons of Anarchy. (He has said he learned to write screenplays from reading thousands of scripts, developing "an allergy to exposition" and a devotion to "absurdly simple plots.") When I mention the overlap with McMurtry, Sheridan is silent for so long I begin to think he might be offended. But then, he says, "Lonesome Dove is one of the great books. It's the first I read by choice—I mean other than for school. I had never seen anyone get Texas right, to go beyond the clichés and stereotypes. So I'm a huge fan. He was very influential of my style of dialogue."

Hell or High Water
Jeff Bridges, left, and Gil Birmingham in 2016's 'Hell or High Water,' written by Sheridan. Lorey Sebastian

You can hear echoes of McMurtry in the affectionately tart banter between Sheriff Hamilton and his half-Native, half-Mexican deputy, played by Gil Birmingham, as well as in the friendship between Lambert and the father of the murdered girl, also played by Birmingham. You can see the influence, too, in Sheridan's cast of indelible eccentrics, as well as the strong women characters (like Olsen's and Emily Blunt's FBI agent in Sicario) that sidestep stereotypes. Both writers are intent on demythologizing the American West, retaining the best of the frontier spirit—the self-reliance, the stoicism, the taciturn wit—while conjuring its worst aspects.

In addition to Wind River, Sheridan wrote the Sicario sequel, Soldado, due later this year, and is currently working on Yellowstone, the first series for the newly created Paramount Network (formerly Spike TV). The 10-episode show, which stars Kevin Costner, is set on a ranch in present day Wyoming, where the writer lives with his family, and focuses on the tensions that preoccupy Sheridan. "I'm in prep, which is the point where I always feel like this is the thing that ruins my career," he says. "That one moment where you look at it and go, This is a really bad idea."

Wind River opens August 4.