WIND RIVER is a chilling thriller that follows a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who teams up with a local game tracker with deep community ties and a haunted past (Jeremy Renner) to investigate the murder of a local girl on a remote Native American Reservation in the hopes of solving her mysterious death.
Martin Sensmeier | Elizabeth Olsen | Jon Bernthal | Jeremy Renner | Gil Birmingham
Anyone who has seen either Sicario or Hell or High Water, the two previous scripts credited to writer/director Taylor Sheridan, should have a good idea what to expect tonally from Wind River. Sheridan doesn't write happy, escapist fantasies. His movies, although technically "crime thrillers", are more concerned with the inner dynamics of wounded, flawed characters. Wind River, a workmanlike example of the genre, excels because of the screenplay's investment in its characters, particularly Jeremy Renner's Cory Lambert. Lambert's three-dimensionality elevates Wind River above the norms of the traditional crime movie so that, in addition to delivering the expected tropes, it provides a richer, more fulfilling experience.
The movie transpires on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming during the early days of spring when wild, unpredictable snowstorms lash the region and the ground is encrusted by the remnants of the fading winter. There, while hunting mountain lions who have killed cattle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Renner) finds the frozen corpse of a young woman who, he is shocked to discover, was the best friend of his deceased daughter. Because of jurisdictional issues, the local sheriff (Graham Greene) is forced to call in the FBI, which sends a capable but unprepared agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), to head the murder investigation. Realizing that she needs help, she asks Cory to work with her and, considering his personal stake in finding the killer(s), he agrees. Their hunt takes them deep into the inhospitable wilderness where the elements provide as big a danger as the men who live there.
Those who enjoy murder mysteries will find that most of the requisite elements are present: red herrings, belligerent witnesses, unhelpful friends and family, romance and sex, and an element of personal danger for the investigators. Wind River works diligently to keep our attention, although the action-oriented aspects are minimal. This is more of a slow-burn thriller, focused on a gradual build-up of tension until the pressure is released in a sudden, shocking burst. There isn't much in the narrative that lovers of the genre will find surprising but the story is skillfully told. In the end, there's no ambiguity about the crime - it's depicted in detail via an "omniscient flashback" - so the viewer is privy to more information that the characters. One can quibble about Sheridan's decision to present the key scene when and how he does (although it couldn't be placed chronologically or it would kill the mystery) but it clarifies aspects of the story that might otherwise require lengthy exposition. Showing is often better than telling.
The movie is less about the hunt for the criminals than the inner evolution of the lead character. When we first meet Cory, he seems to be a reserved, competent sharpshooter who does his job, cares for his son, and is cordial to his ex-wife (Julia Jones). His past is gradually revealed as the story moves forward - including the death of his teenage daughter and the weight of guilt and grief he carries with him three years later. His most poignant scene comes as he confesses these things to Jane, whom he has just met. Wind River isn't about Cory's redemption per se but it shows how solving this murder allows him to change, working through unresolved issues about his daughter's death and allowing him to reach a new emotional plateau.
Strong performances by Renner and Olsen highlight the movie. Renner conveys much through inflection and occasional slips of his blasé façade. It's masterful minimalist acting. Olsen's role isn't as meaty but the film explores the difficulties encountered by a young female agent in a situation like this. The Native Americans regard her with borderline-hostility and the rugged white men don't take her seriously. Solving the crime is a way to re-enforce her self-worth. Capable support is provided by Graham Greene, whose history as a "go-to" Native American actor goes all the way back to Dances with Wolves, and Jon Bernthal in a small-but-important part.
Wind Riveris less bleak than Sicario (which was directed by Denis Villeneuve) but lacks some of the low-key comedic elements present in Hell or High Water (directed by David Mackenzie). Sheridan proves himself to be as capable as Villeneuve or Mackenzie in realizing his vision - the bleak, snowy setting is effectively crafted and the movie crackles with suppressed tension when the need arises. The narrative effectively marries the character based-aspects with the mystery-thriller ones for a late summer experience that is engrossing and moving. The movie as a whole and Renner's performance in particular should get some consideration when end-of-the-year citations are being given out.