One of Cannes’ most promising — if relatively unsung — up-and-coming heroes, Taylor Sheridan, has entered the annual festival’s competitive fray once again with Wind River, his second Un Certain Regard selection (first as director) in just over a year, and a potential Oscar contender at that.
Wind River — starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, and Jon Bernthal in a tale revolving around an FBI agent investigating a murder on a Native American reservation — blew critics away following its world premiere screening at Sundance in January. As Sheridan stands to mount a third go-round on the Cannes stage, most mainstream critics have already vetted his directorial debut: “This bitter, visceral, and almost parodically intense thriller knows what it takes to survive,” IndieWire‘s David Ehrlich wrote out of the Park City, Utah-based event, while Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman noted that Sheridan “caught something debased and valiant, desperate and mournfully compelling in the sight of recognizable people caught up in the larger-than-life world of crime” in previous films like 2015’s Sicario and last year’s under-the-radar best picture nominee Hell or High Water, adding that in “Wind River, he pushes that further, so that the scraggly human side of the drama is now far more potent and tangible than the underworld drive.”
Sheridan, already in the good graces of cinéastes and Academy members alike (both Sicario and Hell or High Water, which he penned, scored multiple nods in recent years), stands to finally capitalize on his rise through the awards season ranks with Wind River. While Cannes typically can’t guarantee a film’s placement in the Oscar race, it can facilitate a picture’s breakout on the early awards circuit, and Wind River might be the dark horse that finally sheds light on Sheridan’s talents.
Last year, Hell or High Water rode the buzzy tide from the shores of Cannes all the way through to the Oscars ceremony, as did Sicario (albeit in below-the-line categories) the year before. Still, Wind River might not have registered inside the Oscar bubble if its trajectory didn’t closely mirror the former’s. Both Sicario and Hell or High Water charted early courses atop the year at international film festivals and enjoyed healthy reviews on the road toward a late summer release (Hell or High Water bowed on Aug. 26, 2016, while Wind River is slated to hit theaters Aug. 4).
Neither date is particularly Oscar-friendly, per tradition. The difference here is in the hands of those pulling the strings: CBS Films and Lionsgate allowed Hell or High Water to build steadily at the tail end of last year, never getting ahead of themselves as the film slowly snowballed its footing on the down low, steadily humming along, quietly picking up precursor recognition (ACE Eddie, Critics Choice, Indie Spirits, Golden Globes) after letting critics and audiences dictate the path it would travel. Of 232 reviews sampled on Rotten Tomatoes, 226 are positive, with the film posting an average score of 8.5/10. It subsequently grossed $27 million on domestic screens — more than double what the David Mackenzie-directed contemporary western cost to make. The Weinstein Company, which has loosened its once-firm grip on consistent Oscar traction since 2015, will roll Wind River out in similar fashion.
While Wind River doesn’t exactly have a Jeff Bridges-caliber acting veteran for critics to rally behind, as they did for the 67-year-old’s brilliant turn in Hell or High Water, Wind River‘s Olsen has long been on the verge of a prestige breakthrough, having emerged as a strong actress in both big-budget spectacles (Godzilla) and highbrow indies (Martha Marcy May Marlene) alike. Most reviews have been kind to Renner, a two-time Academy Award nominee himself, as well.
Either way, Sheridan, with three well-received turns as a screenwriter and one locked-and-loaded directorial feature under his belt, has done something most of his industry seniors have yet to accomplish across multiple decades: In a little over two years, he’s already solidified himself as overdue for an Academy Award, and with the right push, Wind River might just breeze into the laps of Oscar voters after all. If not, its maker has, by all accounts, simply polished another shining addition to an already gleaming resume.