In case you missed it, and most people did, “Wind River” is one of the most compelling, intriguing and memorable thrillers of the year. This is the final installment of Taylor Sheridan’s thematic American Frontier trilogy. “Sicario” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016) did not enjoy much commercial success, but were rightly recognized by the movie industry. “Wind River” may already be on a similar path.
The plot is relatively straightforward. An FBI agent teams with a town’s veteran game hunter to investigate a murder on a Native American reservation. But, Sheridan confirms the proven adage that what’s most important is how the story is told. Rookie Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is a fish out of water while Jeremy Renner brings the requisite credibility and gravitas to the role of tracker Cory Lambert.
The Wyoming countryside (filmed in actual blizzard conditions near Park City, UT) is cold, stark and foreboding. The viewer gains an immediate respect for the stunning and unforgiving landscape as well as for the tracker who seems to know this country like the back of his hand. However, nothing is harder to track than the truth.
Inspired by actual events, Sheridan presents stark differences between a city slicker and veteran tracker, old and young, whites and natives, and Federal and local jurisdictions. We witness poverty, addictions, violence and despair on the Reservation. It also exists in an inner city ghetto, but here, nobody seems to care.
When Cory discovers the body of an Indian woman, frozen in the middle of nowhere, he notifies the authorities. As it turns out, Indians have no legal authority if the suspected assailant is white. If reversed, they would, but local Sheriff must assist. In this case, the FBI must be dispatched and the only one available is rookie special agent Banner, from Ft. Lauderdale, by way of Las Vegas, and unfamiliar with the land or customs.
For most of the movie, there is very little action and not that much dialog, but every scene is intense, powerful and mesmerizing. It’s cold as a well digger’s, you know. But the frigid air is as bitter as the cultural divide so suspicious of outsiders. The emotional wall is displayed mostly through body language and cordial, but cutting remarks.
When hoping for backup, tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) explains, “This isn’t the land of back up, this is the land of you’re on your own.” Agent Banner, responds, “I don’t know this country, but I’m all you got.” She enlists Cory in the hunt, but when she asks Martin (Gil Birmingham), father of the victim, some blunt questions, he asks, “Why is it that whenever you people try to help us, you always insult us first, huh?”
This is billed as a who-done-it, but it’s a serious drama, social commentary and character study. Jeremy Renner is so remarkably steadfast in his role of the hunter/tracker, it is clearly his best performance since his Oscar nominated role in “Hurt Locker.” When asked if he will help pursue the assailant, he responds, “I’m a hunter, what do you think I’m going to do?”
Elizabeth Olsen has not only come of age, but exhibits commanding acting chops that signify a continued bright future for the young actress. Finally, Graham Greene is eloquently judicious as Police Chief, while Gil Birmingham is convincingly resolute.
“Wind River” is 107 minutes and rated R for violence, disturbing images and language. If you missed it, catch it on DVD or Netflix. It is a crime thriller set in the wilds that adds plot twists and emotional depth. The plot is simple, the lives are complex and the story is skillfully told for the audience to hang onto each scene. It’s still a hard movie to watch.
Sheridan’s films are not necessarily for the general audience, but “Wind River” depicts a hauntingly beautiful landscape full of desperation, hopelessness and a reality we don’t typically see. Nobody can right the wrongs committed against an entire race of people, but when people do what they can, most find a way to live another day.
Ron’s Rating: A-
Leigh’s Rating: B