“Wind River” is a Suspenseful Follow-up to Last Year’s “Hell or High Water”

Taylor Sheridan just might make a career out of telling suspense-filled, intermittently violent tales with a social conscience.  His script for last year’s excellent Hell or High Water combined commentary about banks exploiting the poor of America’s heartland with a rip-roaring cops and robbers saga.  Now, he’s moved north to Wyoming, both writing and directing a darker narrative.

Wind River opens with U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) expertly tracking and dispersing a group of predatory wolves on the Indian reservation of the same name.  Completing this task against a snowy, remote Wyoming landscape, he discovers the bloodied and frozen body of a young woman.

Soon enough, Ben (Graham Greene) – a Bureau of Indian Affairs police chief – is on the scene.  Within hours, he’s joined by a seemingly callow FBI investigator, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who’s flown in from Vegas, clearly unprepared for subzero temperatures.

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner, in "Wind River"
Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner, in “Wind River”

When the homicide investigation threatens to founder on petty questions of jurisdiction, Jane quickly demonstrates that she is empathically committed to do right by the victim.  Recognizing that she’s ignorant of surrounding geography, she humbly requests Cory’s assistance.  After some initial reluctance, he confidently but without swagger leads Jane across windy plains and up mountains by snowmobile and snowshoes.

This trio’s legwork takes them into homes across the reservation.  Some show the trappings of middle class propriety; others exude the desperation of poverty and addiction.

We’re also immersed into Cory’s sad history, learning gradually that his daughter was similarly murdered 3 years ago.  A mystery that was never solved, it ruptured his marriage to his Native American wife and limits his contact with his surviving son.

For anyone who’s viewed both Wind River and Hell or High Water, comparisons are inevitable.  Both emanate a powerful sense of place, in locales of contemporary American disenfranchisement.  The cultural and geographical desolation in both movies was highlighted by the plaintive strings of a film score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave.

At times, Hell or High Water gave in to sermonizing via its dialogue and its visuals.  The imagery sometimes felt too on-the-nose, lingering overmuch on foreclosure signs and graffiti that spelled out the betrayal of the American dream.

Writer/director Sheridan largely avoids this temptation in Wind River, with the possible exception of the film’s coda and an opening shot of a car rushing past a tattered American flag flying upside down.

But for the body of his movie, if anything, the desperation of this region is underplayed.  Only in reading a New York Times article afterwards did I learn that the inhabitants of the Wind River reservation suffer an 80% unemployment rate and a life expectancy of 49 years.  Indeed, with a homicide rate 5-7 times the national average among a population of 14,000, Cory’s plight in the film – of aiding the investigation of a death that mirrors that of his daughter – becomes far more plausible.

Graham Greene and Elizabeth Olsen, in "Wind River"
Graham Greene and Elizabeth Olsen, in “Wind River”

Sheridan elicits excellent performances from each of the lead actors.  Jeremy Renner, though best known for playing the least interesting Avengers superhero, continues to rack up an impressive list of obscurer roles.  As in last year’s Arrival and 2014’s Kill the Messenger, he portrays another character dedicated to a difficult job, his passion and warm humanity readily, believably peeking through.

Gil Birmingham is back from Hell or High Water, where he was Jeff Bridges’ long-suffering sidekick.  This time, he superbly plays the father of the murdered young woman, a fate over which he and Renner’s character form a tight bond.

Elizabeth Olsen again shows an enviable capacity to take on complex roles (she was especially memorable as a cult survivor in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene).  However, I wish Graham Greene, earning his fame in Dances with Wolves, had been given more to do here.

Nonetheless, Wind River is a film well worth tracking down, and with its overhead views of mountains and neighboring oil fields, seeing on the big screen.  (Hopefully, it will gain a wider release, since I had to travel an hour from home to catch it.)  Only Taylor Sheridan’s second directing effort, it leaves me eager for his next project.

3.5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  Wind River is appropriately rated R for its occasional strong violence, some of it sexual in nature.)

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