Wind River One of the Year's Better Films

Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Weinstein Company, 111 minutes, R (violence, rape, language)
★★★★ 1/2   

Taylor Sheridan, who penned the Oscar-nominated script for Hell or High Water, is no stranger to gritty drama set in wide-open spaces. In Wind River he tries his hand at directing and serves up a first-rate murder mystery set in the namesake mountain range and Indian reservation of central Wyoming. It is an awe-inspiring setting, but of the variety that is equal parts beautiful and terrifying. It takes a self-contained person to live amidst such isolation, bone-jarring winters, and soul-sucking poverty—the kind that knows how to suit up for subzero temperatures and dash across high altitudes in a snowmobile.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a laconic U.S. Fish and Wildlife official whose tracking, hunting, and wilderness skills make him a modern-day mountain man. That handle also fits because he's not nearly as adroit in people skills and has an Indian ex-wife named Wilma (Julia Jones) to prove it. He tries to be a good dad to his young son, Casey, and a good neighbor to everyone, but he's more the kind of guy you admire than love. We suspect he's psychologically scarred, which ironically makes him one of the few Anglos that local Indians and mixed bloods respect.

Wind River is built around Lambert's discovery of the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), the daughter of Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Annie, a Native-American couple whom Lambert has known for years. It's clear from Natalie's gashed forehead and bare feet that she has been murdered, but several technicalities—including the 'official' cause of death and the part of the mountain in which she was found—cloud the investigation. Is this a matter for the tribal police—basically its chief, Ben (Graham Greene) and part-time deputies—or the feds? Not even the FBI knows for sure, which is why they send a single agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), and she's a Floridian by birth. Basically Ben and Banner are left to sort it out and both know they will need Lambert to aid them.

I mention this setup because, at this juncture, Wind River could have become a cookie cutter film. You know the type—people from differing backgrounds cooperate, learn to respect each other's differences, and beautiful relationships blossom. The fact that none of this happens in Wild River is among the things that makes it a really fine film instead of a string of high-altitude, high-toned clichés. Another is that its characters don't—if you will—break character and become snow-suited versions of Mr. Rogers. There's stuff in the back-story that won't reduce to formula: the (often warranted) distrust between locals and outsiders, the crushing despair that can break those who lack purpose or opportunity, deep wounds that might never heal, and the incompatible pulls between tradition and whatever the hell modernity means in a place so remote.

Despite its grisly scenes and forays into violence, this is a gorgeous film to watch. Sheridan uses Wyoming's grandeur to do far more than provide a pretty frame. There is the palpable sense that people such as Cory, Ben, Wilma, Martin, Annie, and others are close with their words because the land reminds them of their ephemerality. In this sense, Renner's performance is tone perfect, and Birmingham and Greene are just a half note behind. Olsen is competent as FBI agent Banner, though l longed for an ineffable something that I imagine a young Jodie Foster would have brought to the role. Truth be told, the bad guys are presented with a heavy hand that plays out too much like a Western, but Sheridan redeems himself with a memorable and satisfying vengeance scene.

Perhaps the biggest rap against the film is that Sheridan doesn't have a very good sense of timing. This film, like last year's Hell or High Water, hasn't gotten the audience it deserves. Weinstein, the film's distributor, initially backed out and then reconsidered. This pushed the film into summer release, a time in which it's hard to gain traction amidst all the mindless blockbuster-at-the-mall hype. Wind River has garnered film festival accolades, but it's in limited theater release and is easy to overlook. Don't make that mistake; this is one of the year's best films.

Rob Weir  

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