★ ★ ★
Last year Taylor Sheridan helped breathe new life into the western genre with the script to “Hell or High Water.” It was a hot and sweaty West Texas crime drama that earned four Oscar nominations. His latest film is another neo-western but feels much different. “Wind River” is a wintry murder mystery set on a First Nations Reserve.
Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a Wyoming Fish and Wildlife agent called to the reserve where his ex-wife (Julia Jones) lives to track a mountain lion that has attacked local livestock. While hunting his prey he discovers the dead body of local teen Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille). She’s miles away from the nearest house, barefoot and frozen solid. Lambert figures she died running away from something or someone until her lungs froze and burst in the 20 below weather. When FBI agent
Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives solo she asks Lambert to aid in the hunt for Natalie’s killers. “You're looking for clues,” Lambert says, “but missing all the signs.” The pair soon discovers that mountain lions aren't the most dangerous predators in the area.
Sheridan’s scripts (he also directed “Wind River”) explore social issues. “Sicario” dove into the soft underbelly of the American war on drugs while “Hell or High Water” was a financial-crisis drama set against a backdrop of outlaws, buddies and banks. “Wind River” shines a light on law enforcement’s apathy in investigating the disappearance of indigenous women.
Set against the snow and silence of Wyoming mountain country “Wind River” is a much quieter movie than “Sicario” or “Hell or High Water,” and a little more conventional as well. Apart from a gun battle late in the film, there is little in the way of complex drama or action. Instead this is more about location, the harsh climate and the characters.
Sheridan populates the film with compelling characters. Renner is at his craggy best as a man as tough as the land he makes his living on. Olsen is a scrappy presence as a young, inexperienced agent trying to maintain control of the situation.
As Natalie’s grieving father Gil Birmingham (who appeared in “Hell or High Water” as Jeff Bridges’ partner) hands in a steely but soulful performance while Graham Greene brings a world-weary humour to the role of the local sheriff. “This is the land of no back up,” he says to Banner, “it's the land of your own back up.”
“Wild River” may be set in a winter wonderland—bring a blanket, the iciness is infectious—but despite the abundance of snow Sheridan and his actors insert enough humanity to keep the story’s warm heart beating.