Taylor Sheridan, recognisable as Deputy Chief David Hale from three seasons of television’s Sons of Anarchy, has experienced a remarkable rise to fame behind the camera. After acting for 20 years, he realised how little he was being paid in supporting roles, and embarked on a writing career – with stellar results.
Even though his earlier films – Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water – were two big Cannes successes, as a writer he wasn’t invited to come to the festival. However, as the writer and director of Wind River (the third part of his ‘American Frontiers’ trilogy) he finally made it to the Riviera.
“Isn’t it crazy?” he says in a television interview with France 24. “It’s great, I’m really excited that Wind River is here. It’s my first time here. I didn't come for the other two films. They don't pay for the writer to come, but for the director they’ve got to send us.”
The 47-year-old went on to win the best director prize in the Un Certain Regard section, and Wind River surely would have won an award if it had been able to compete in the festival’s Official Competition. It was ineligible, as it had premiered in Sundance, which was appropriate given the film was shot in Park City Studios and in the local mountainous snow-covered terrain.
Initially Sheridan, a fan of the films of Sam Peckinpah, Michael Mann, Clint Eastwood and John Ford, was not going to direct. Yet the Wind River story, set on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, where sexual assault is endemic – “it’s considered a rite of passage to be raped,” he says – was so important to get right.
“It's a really personal story for me about a place and a people I care deeply about. It’s not always a pleasant ride but I think it’s an important one.
“There’s no doubt that screenwriting’s a lot easier [than directing],” he chuckles. “You know, you get some wine, put on some music… directing’s a really miserable experience in every way. But there are stories you want to tell, and you want to see them all the way through, and that was the only way to do it here.”
Not that the film gets sanctimonious or worthy. Like his previous two films, he counts Wind River as a whodunit. Native American teenager Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille, who will surely go places) is murdered, and local tracker and US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is put on the case. He bristles at the notion of city slicker FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) coming in and taking over, though they ultimately make quite a team.
“We’ve all seen a version of this movie before, it's a crime thriller where you see this victim die and then you see them try to solve it, and they solve it,” Sheridan notes. “What you don't see is the life, and I wanted to personalise this life that was lost and see what happened to this girl, and how her murder affected everyone. I wanted the audience to know her. So to hear her voice as she was running for her life… I thought it was a beautiful thing.”
Renner, who has a rare facility to play both tough and emotional, gives one of his best performances to date as a grieving father whose daughter had died in similar circumstances.
“I wanted to watch someone figure out how to grieve in the moment without being able to check this box that said, ‘OK, I have one catharsis now’,” Sheridan says. “Suffering is suffering and sometimes you don't get answers.”
He had wanted to cast Renner from the get-go but the actor was busy filming Arrival with director Denis Villeneuve. “A year later I still hadn’t cast the character, and Denis said Jeremy was available. Cory’s a father like I am, and the film is about things that terrify you as a father. In fact, all three films are about fathers who have failed in some way or who have suffered a loss.”
Olsen’s tough rookie agent is the alter ego of Emily Blunt’s seasoned though vulnerable agent in Sicario, he says. “In Jane you have someone who’s born to do this; she is extremely physically capable and she has absolutely no experience.” In the final standoff she certainly comes to the fore. “I wanted to watch her find a strength to diffuse a dozen men who are going to kill each other. I thought Lizzie was phenomenal in that moment, which we had to shoot in like 15 minutes.”
Olsen, last seen as the Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War (and who is coming soon in Avengers: Infinity War, alongside Renner), also stars in a second Sydney Film Festival entry, Ingrid Goes West, which likewise premiered in Sundance. Olsen is luminous as an Instagram-famous influencer, whose perfectly calibrated bohemian Los Angeles lifestyle becomes the obsession of Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid.
“It’s an attention thing for kids who have aspirations to be stars; they want to work amongst the celebrity culture and create their own businesses,” Olsen says. “I don't really know them, but I’m from LA and in order to play these parts you've got to be a sponge for the people around you. I think they’re there,” she cackles. “I started to work six years ago, finding my group and trying to find the balance between working in Marvel movies, which I love doing, and passion projects like Ingrid Goes West and Wind River."