If you are a fan of last year’s excellent modern Western Hell or High Water, get yourself into a theater to see Wind River.
The writer of Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan, writes and directs Wind River. He is a true wordsmith who captures American dilemmas on par with Sam Shepard and Cormac McCarthy. The man knows how to pen a great thriller with depth, and his works (he also wrote Sicario) all have a common, somber tone. This is a guy who knows that many of the people you will pass on the street are dealing with grief and loss—they are surviving, but it’s a bitch, and it’s not going to get easier.
Wind River marks Sheridan’s second directorial effort, after 2011’s low-budget Vile, and it stands as one of the summer’s best films. It’s a solid mystery-thriller, and a showcase for fierce performances from Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. They both offer up career-best work, with Renner searing the screen as Cory, a man with a tragic past who is paid to hunt wolves and mountain lions on a Native American reservation. Olsen commands her screen time as Jane, one of cinema’s gutsiest FBI agents since Clarice Starling.
Sheridan, who directs with style and grace, gives us a haunting image to start his movie: Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a young Native American woman, is running across a freezing nightscape with no shoes on. She’s scared for her life, but we don’t know why. Soon, we will find out.
Cory is patrolling snow-covered grounds, shooting wolves from long distances. He’s stoic and level-headed, a quiet man whose emotions never go to a fever pitch. However, when Cory discovers the body of the woman we saw in the opening sequence, it’s clear that the woman’s identity strikes a chord in his heart.
Cory and his ex-wife (Julia Jones) have lost a child, and they are doing their best to give their living son (Teo Briones) a happy life in the aftermath. Their lost daughter was the best friend of the new victim—understandably setting something off in Cory. When FBI Agent Jane shows up, lost in a snowstorm and looking for answers, he’s more than willing to help with the investigation.
Sheridan’s mystery builds from there, as the identity of the murderer is not immediately apparent. Considering the murder took place on a sparsely populated reservation, there aren’t many suspects, but Sheridan will keep you guessing—and you’ll suspect everybody onscreen. The conclusion doesn’t feel like a narrative cheat, as so many murder mysteries do. The conclusion resonates with horror and bleakness; you aren’t going to have a typical good time at this movie.
You will, however, be witnessing remarkable work by Renner. He’s tasked with some of the most emotionally brutal scenes an actor has had to handle this year. He’s been impressive before (in The Hurt Locker), but this takes his stock to a new level. When he recounts the death of his daughter to Jane, the story almost knocks her on her ass—and you can relate. I mentioned that Cory is stoic, but he’s most certainly not one-dimensional. Renner finds ample nuance and power in this character’s quiet pain.
Olsen matches Renner on all fronts. Her Jane is a by-the-book type who must make some major adjustments in the field while dealing with the grief all around her. Jane is supposed to be setting the table for a bigger investigation, but she finds herself drawing her gun more than once; she’s in it for the long haul. The character goes through many phases during film’s 107-minute running time, and Olsen makes all of them intriguing.
Gil Birmingham (who also starred in Hell or High Water) and Graham Greene round out one of the year’s best ensemble casts.
Wind River will exhaust you by the time credits roll. It’ll bum you out—as it damn well should.
Wind River is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive; 844-462-7342), the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033) and the Century La Quinta and XD (46800 Washington St., La Quinta; 760-771-5682.)