Sunday, September 10, 2017
A young woman - frightened, injured, and underdressed - makes her way across a snowy landscape at night. A few minutes later, a herd of sheep are menaced by wolves in the same countryside. The opening scenes of Taylor Sheridan's Wind River promise something dark and unforgiving, almost too much so. The crime film, Sheridan's feature directorial debut after writing Hell or High Water and Sicario, is a grim story of people carrying the weight of living in rough country. But there is also considerable emotional nuance, thanks in large part to an excellent lead performance by Jeremy Renner. Renner plays Cory Lambert, whose job for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to track and hunt predators in and around the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. We learn early on that Lambert has a Native American ex-wife named Wilma (Julia Jones) and young son Casey (Teo Briones) who don't live on the reservation, but a sadness hangs over their house and Sheridan doesn't reveal right away why Wilma seems so unhappy with Casey visiting his grandparents at Wind River. The frightened young woman that Sheridan began the film with is named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), and Lambert finds her body while tracking a lion behind the house of his former in-laws. The discovery brings both tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) and a young FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, quite good and far away from her Ingrid Goes West role), who is smart enough to realize that her awkward interaction with Natalie's father (Gil Birmingham) is a sign she'll need Lambert's help with the case.
The dynamic of an emotionally withdrawn man and a less experienced woman could easily go wrong, but Sheridan balances the relationship intelligently. Banner isn't green, she's undermanned, and the resignation of Graham Greene's Ben over the chance the murder won't be solved is a tidy symbol for the powerlessness that everyone on the reservation feels. Sheridan is interested in people living in difficult landscapes, and his version of the country in and around Wind River is of a cold, empty place that offers no opportunities for its people. Lambert is a useful guide through the both the literal and cultural wilderness of Wind River but he isn't a cop, and Banner is on her own when violence breaks out early in the investigation. To say more about the story would spoil the experience, but the ugliness and smallness of those responsible for Natalie's death is even more striking when placed in relief against the bleakness of the country. The last section of Wind River includes a flashback to Natalie's last night, and it's a set piece of slowly building horror. Fair enough then that when the case has concluded - the climactic violence is immediate and disturbing in a way I don't think I've seen before - Lambert and Natalie's father can simply sit together in a grief they share. (A title card announces that there is no law enforcement data kept on missing Native American women, which appears to be generally true.) Jeremy Renner has never quite balanced intelligence, charm, and unhappiness the way he does here, and his performance is so quietly charismatic that I wouldn't even have minded if Lambert and Banner had gotten together. (They don't.) Wind River is an adult entertainment of a kind we need more of, a work of mature storytelling that doesn't forget to be human.