Though he’s relatively new to the game as a screenwriter after starting as an actor, when the Oscar-nominated name Taylor Sheridan is on the poster next to “Written by…,” you expect a certain edge from a man who declares himself “allergic to exposition.” You are locked in for a duel between bark and bite akin to his award-winning screenplays for Sicario (more bite) and Hell or High Water (more bark). Wind River, Sheridan’s debut as a feature film director, is an excellent stern medium between the teeth and the roar.
The bitter kiss of winter typifies the created narrative of this “snow-estern” tackling a composite pot-boiler inspired by true social issues set in and around the economically-challenged Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming. The body of a dead woman is found in a snowbank six miles away from any town by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services hunter tracker named Cody Lambert (top-billed Jeremy Renner). It is a shocking discovery for two reasons. First, it’s astounding that the woman survived running and plodding six miles barefoot, injured, bleeding, and raped before succumbing to the frigid conditions. Second, with this being an isolated and sparsely populated area, Cody knows exactly who the woman is.
The victim was Natalie Hanson (TV actress Kelsey Chow), the former best friend of Cody’s own departed teenage daughter who died three years prior under equally painful and unsolved circumstances. For him, it’s like looking in a mirror to see history repeat itself and that potent sadness looms large. The loss of a child is a scar on the heart and constant trigger of guilt for Cody. It is damage he knows too well and now shares with good friend and Natalie’s angered father Martin (Gil Birmingham from Hell or High Water).
Natalie’s potential murder on federal land cues the involvement of the FBI, in the form of young field agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), to assist Ben (a scene-stealing Graham Greene), the local Tribal Police long-arm-of-the-law charged and undermanned at maintaining order. Challenged by the rugged topography and the unpredictably extreme weather swings, Jane and Ben enlist Cody’s help as the man who knows this area’s burly countryside like no one else. The three of them go about digging deeper beneath the epidermal layer of frost to find darker and more searing underpinnings to the crime.
The raw natural elements of coniferous green and weathered mountain vista stone break up the whites of the birch trees and biting blizzards captured by Beasts of the Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson. His shot variety is excellent and the patient pacing of regular Eastwood editor Gary D. Roach allows the potential peril to linger like frostbite. The imagery of an upside-down American flag and a tonal musical shift delivered by composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) let us know thematically that jurisdiction and primal dominance change in this unsavory setting. Combining spiritual vocals within the score’s dirge, the result is mystic work from the Australian duo.
The Carthartt apparel and the weathered cowboy hat may make Jeremy Renner look strapping maneuvering a snowmobile and macho shouldering a rifle, but he emotes a wounded bear on the inside to perfection. Playing his age of 46 instead of superhero or superstar, Renner hasn’t been this good since The Hurt Locker. His stone cold righteousness, coiled tightly in silent tension instead of flamboyance, is captivating all its own. Thankfully, Wind River doesn’t bury its integrity under any hackneyed romance between Renner and Olsen.
Through every snowflake and gunshot, Taylor Sheridan cuts to the marrow and keeps Wind River firmly on track with its layered stages of discovery. Tighter than Hell or High Water and more humane than Sicario, this film creates a tone of toughness balanced adroitly by human realities occurring in a dangerous place with a different set of rules. The end result is a highly engrossing mystery with the edge we have come to appreciate and admire from Sheridan.
LESSON #1: THE EPIDEMICS OF MURDER AND MISSING PERSONS ON INDIAN RESERVATIONS-- Wind River bases itself on and stumps against the disparaging progression of unchecked crime happening all over the nation on Native American lands. The stories and statistics on unsolved homicides and missing persons cases on reservations are startling, even against this film’s clear dramatic license.
LESSON #2: HOW FAST THE COLD CAN KILL SOMEONE-- Far from turning into a police procedural on network television, we learn incredibly straightforwardly just how easy and quickly extreme low temperatures can defeat our bodies and lungs.
LESSON #3: HUNTERS HUNT-- The one thing that can kill someone faster than the cold in this movie is a critical hit from a bullet. You don’t want to be on the other side of Cody’s scope or sights. He doesn’t have to be a lawman to be very good at seeing the tracks and signs of his surroundings and reacting to them with necessary force.
LESSON #4: THE PAIN OF LOSING A CHILD-- Any healing Cody has accomplished in grieving and moving on from his daughter’s death is being tested and sometimes torn down by this new murder. It is pain he and now Martin must take through inescapable suffering. Cody puts it as either choosing to surrender to or survive the grief. In his eyes, strength, spirit, and luck can keep good memories on top of the bad ones.