Violent crime is a staple of action movies; we’re all so inured to violence onscreen, it’s usually just another plot point toward solving the mystery. So it’s rare to find the consequences of violence—on the victims, their families and friends, and their community—portrayed with such somber eloquence as they are in Wind River. Thoughtful, infuriating, and heartbreaking, this searing, expertly told tale of crime and punishment on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming will leave you breathless.
This is only the second movie directed by Taylor Sheridan, an actor and scriptwriter best known for writing Sicario and last year’s highly lauded Hell Or High Water. As a director here, he combines swift and cogent storytelling with an impressive sense of visual composition. The icy mountain peaks, bone-freezing cold, daunting snowdrifts, and stark, empty landscapes of one of our nation’s most notoriously brutal and brutalizing Native American reservations all become characters in the drama.
Sheridan shows how the remoteness of the region—smack in the middle of Wyoming, on a parcel of land the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined—has an isolating effect on families who live there. Far removed from the three main highways that pass through the state, the residents stuck in the cycle of hopelessness and poverty of reservation life risk moral isolation as well, from a society that has long since forgotten them.
At the center of the drama is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a hunter and tracker of predatory animals. A loner by nature, Cory was married to an Arapaho woman (Julia Jones) with whom he is co-parenting their son. One day, up in the high country, while tracking a mountain lion that has been preying on local livestock, Cory finds the frozen body of a young woman.
Because the circumstances are suspicious, and the death occurred on federal land, the FBI sends out agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Operating out of Las Vegas (she was the closest agent the feds could find), Jane arrives with insufficient snow gear and an expectation that things will be done according to procedure—like calling for back-up before entering a dangerous situation. As tribal police chief Ben (the always-great Graham Greene) calmly explains, “This is the land of ‘you’re on your own.’”
With his insider’s knowledge of both the community and the surrounding wilderness, Cory joins the investigation. Outsider though she is, Jane feels passionate outrage for young women already marginalized by their heritage and gender so easily preyed upon in a society of tough guys in trucks and snowmobiles—not only aimless locals, but riggers and guards attached to an oil-drilling site pumping resources and profits off the reservation.
Director Sheridan conveys the dynamics of reservation life as background, but this is primarily a suspense thriller told with skill and urgency as the characters gear up for the inevitable dispensing of frontier justice. It’s a harrowing movie to watch, especially the flashback to the crime itself (although it might have been a little better integrated into the narrative).
But the resonance of Renner’s understated acting, moments of unexpected visual splendor, and mounting psychological intensity make it all irresistibly compelling. Resonant too is the lyrical soundtrack of haunting melodies and soft, moaning vocals by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Sheridan is scrupulous about casting actors of Native American blood to play Native roles. Tokala Clifford contributes a mesmerizing couple of scenes as a bad-news stoner at the outskirts of the community. And Gil Birmingham has terrific presence as Martin, the victim’s father. (Painting on his “death face” to honor his daughter, he admits to old friend Cory, “I made it up. There’s no one left to teach us.”) A quiet scene when these two taciturn men share their grief is the emotional core of this sterling, satisfying film.
***1/2 (out of four)
With Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, and Graham Greene. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. A Weinstein Co. release. Rated R. 107 minutes.