Taylor Sheridan’s scripts use settings that are just as important as the characters that populate them. He wrote the screenplays for ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell or High Water.’ His latest work, ‘Wind River’ is his directorial debut. He’s traded the heat of New Mexico and West Texas for the bitterly cold Wyoming landscape. ‘Wind River’ is full of wide angle shots of pristine blankets of snow. It gives the film a moody feel. We’re entering an Indian reservation where it says a lot about how the native people have been treated over the years. With a reported budget of $11 million, this is an independent film that resonates with strong performances and a powerful message. Sheridan is an auteur in the making and ‘Wind River’ is another important work that shows the harsh disparity of wealth and poverty in the American West.
The story opens with a woman desperately running barefoot in the snow. The next day, her body is discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a tracker with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who eliminates wolves and other predators preying on livestock. He’s a protector in more ways than one as we get to know him. We also find out that the young woman who died in the snow is Natalie (Kelsey Asbile). Cory knew Natalie since he is close to her father Martin (Gil Birmingham). Cory tells him, “I could tell you it gets easier. It doesn’t. Take the pain, Martin. Take it. It’s the only way you’ll keep her with you.” It’s strong dialogue like this that makes Sheridan’s screenplays so gripping. Renner’s character is also still grieving the loss of his own daughter who was friends with Natalie and died under mysterious circumstances years earlier.
Since the tribal police, led by Sheriff Ben (Graham Green) are not equipped to deal with a murder investigation, FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent from the Las Vegas office to help. From the get-go, the young agent is so unprepared for the bitterly cold weather that she has to borrow snow gear from the closet of Cory’s late daughter. It hits home that he still grieving his daughter’s loss. Olsen delivers a solid performance as the inexperienced agent out of her depth. She soon realizes if she is going to have a chance to solve this case that she will need Cory as her guide. They work together to unravel the mystery of what happened to Natalie. Olsen and Renner have worked together in the Marvel cinematic universe. They have a genuine chemistry together. Olsen holds her own on screen but Renner’s performance is brilliant as the strong, silent hero that Sheridan so adeptly knows how to create in his screenplays.
The pacing of the story moves along until we reach the explosive third act. ‘Wind River’ is inspired by true events. It’s revealed later in the film that missing person cases are not tracked in Native American communities. Sheridan knows when to get sentimental as well as when to get brutally real to drive home his message. The scenes between Birmingham and Renner as two grieving fathers are particularly touching. The cinematography by Ben Richardson and the musical score by Nick Cave add to the harsh and unforgiving environment of ‘Wind River.’ It’s Renner’s compelling and honest performance that should not be missed. ‘Wind River’ is a gripping crime thriller that is worth a trip to your local arthouse theater.