Until a development in the third act requires a defense of vigilantism over post-movie cocktails, Wind River is an often gut-wrenching look at mourning. Taylor Sheridan, who wrote 2016’s Hell or High Water, makes a sturdy directorial debut, demonstrating an affinity for the snow-blasted wilderness in and around the eponymous Indian reservation, Wyoming as strongly as Hell or High Water did his feel for the topography of west Texas. But once a screenwriter, always a screenwriter. Sheridan spins contrivances like spiders spin webs, and his picture gets caught in them.
It’s in this dangerous country, where temperatures in the winter often fall to twenty below zero, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) hunts coyotes and mountain lions (often, with Sheridan’s typically sharp ear for local dialect, shortened to “lions”). Hunting for prey deep in the mountains six miles from the highway, he chances upon a barefoot corpse ill equipped for the weather, pools of blood frozen around it. She was Natalie, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the Hansons. Typical of Sheridan’s skill is a scene between Lambert, the tribe police chief Ben (played by Graham Greene with his usual cut-this-crap economy), and the medical examiner, the latter of whom won’t declare Natalie’s death a murder despite a forehead laceration evidence of savage sexual assault. Look at the circumstances, Lambert says. “Circumstances are your thing,” the examiner replies tersely. She died from pulmonary hemorrhage, a result of inhaling frozen air, and that’s all he’ll commit to. A crime on Indian land falls under federal jurisdiction, but two century’s worth of discourtesies and broken promises makes the American government an unwanted presence; it’s one of Wind River‘s strengths that the tension is felt and prodded without a fuss.
When FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives from Las Vegas, it doesn’t take much for the local forces to suss the Fort Lauderdale native. She won’t survive more than a few hours in that Bureau windbreaker, Lambert informs her (Sheridan also includes a lame aside about GPS). Most male directors would turn a female agent into a martinet whose by-the-book attitude adduces her sexual deprivation. But Banner, a quick study and made overeager by compassion, only errs once: attempting to get info from Natalie’s grieving parents, she walks into a bedroom where Natalie’s mother, weeping quietly, is slashing her arms. Relying on Lambert’s tracking skills, she figures out that Natalie had been seeing Matt, an employee at the local oil drilling site. She learns this from Natalie’s brother Chip, a meth addict hiding in a dilapidated shack with the reservation’s troublemakers.
Sheridan, fortunately, doesn’t cast a blanket of portent on his cast or script like David Mackenzie did in Hell or High Water; he trusts the power of the setting and the cast’s small graces. What I’ve withheld from the synopsis so far is that Lambert has himself barely emerged from the shadow of death. His daughter Emily, Nathalie’s best friend and a writer of promise who won a scholarship to Colorado State University, died under mysterious circumstances after an open house party got out of hand; he and his native American wife separated but share custody of their son. In Renner’s laconic performance, his best since Zero Dark Thirty, Lambert emerges as a man living a skeleton’s life, during which duties are performed, air breathed, conversation started, nothing beyond the necessary; Renner’s eyes, set against the his wrinkled clenched fist of a face, have the dull gleam of a coma victim. At first Olson seems miscast; she has the pluck of a high school class president, not an FBI agent. As her empathy wins over Ben and Lambert, though, I started to like her too. Sheridan’s narrative strategy become clearer too: if Banner’s plucky at first, it’s because Lambert sees her that way; no scenes are shot from Banner’s point of view. Sensitivity is Sheridan’s best friend. He doesn’t condescend to natives, white or indigenous; even a scene in which Lambert explains to Martin how he should mourn his daughter works because of their hushed intimacy.
The ending and, more devastatingly, a flashback anticipating the ending at first grossed me out and then threw me out of the picture. Some critic have praised these turns; I say Wind River can survive without them and, indeed, is a better picture without Sheridan’s inclusion of the kind of savage violence that gets called realistic. To understand why the ending feels cathartic doesn’t let Wind River off the aesthetic hook. If the movie becomes a sleeper hit like Hell or High Water, the point is moot. Lacking any special moviemaking magic, Wind River is nevertheless sound entertainment that occasionally is more than that.