Wind River is the dynamic directorial debut of writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water). He again transports us to a rarely examined corner of the world where people struggle against a mean terrain and their own demons. The fallible, frail characters of this Wyoming rage with and without good reason. The isolation and desolate, snow laden land stir up dangerous situations that Sheridan executes in a brutal albeit tender manner.
A Native American woman’s frozen body is found by game hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Still reeling from the mysterious death of his own daughter, this frozen corpse compounds his unresolved agitation. Enter an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who wants a full out murder investigation only to be stymied by technicalities and the small, overwhelmed police force of the reservation. The reservation has only a few officers and too many crimes to give each case a thorough going over. Sheridan’s work is a thoughtful mystery packed with abrupt and gripping action. The stillness of the mountains and wildlife blend entrancingly with the frenzied, often desperate behavior of the human characters.
It’s Renner’s quietly rippling pain that delivers Wind River its best moments. His interactions with the bereaved father (Gil Birmingham, who played Jeff Bridge’s partner in Sheridan’s Hell or High Water) of the murdered woman are tinged with his own searing loss. He can impart what is essential to the grieving process in some respects but what’s remarkable about these conversations is that these two men are allowed to be emotional with one another without any belittlement or sense of competition. Birmingham’s replies are delivered with a knowing wisdom and brilliantly snarky undertone that further affirms what an asset he is to independent film. Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent is entirely too overwrought in the beginning — conveying emotions so big, with emphasized outrage, that her outbursts feel off in otherwise subtle narrative. As the plot progresses, her character seems to find an instinctual maturity and a calmer diplomacy with suspects that flows better with the atmosphere. Regardless of Olsen’s performance, it’s Sheridan who has again carefully crafted a character for a woman (like Emily Blunt’s in Sicario) that has the steely determination and disregard for the status quo to bring an investigation into focus.
Sheridan gives voice to a segment of the Native American population with an utmost respect for their heritage and determination with well-developed supporting characters. However, there is a hint of problematic storytelling in the way that the main White characters swoop in to resolve the case. Perhaps they needed recognizable stars (Renner and Olsen are both recently in The Avengers franchise) or Sheridan didn’t want to claim an all encompassing knowledge of the Native American community. What the plot does do well is explicate that violence against Native American women is rampant and largely left unsolved. It’s an enormously troubling problem that has no easy answer. Wind River is a riveting glimpse into lives of simmering anguish that asks complicated moral questions and answers with discussions of empathy and flourishes of ugly, unrepentant violence.