Murder on the reservation
A well-played character-driven mystery
Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River is a crime thriller that distinguishes itself both as an outdoor action film and as a nuanced multicharacter drama.
The central mystery of the story revolves around the violent death of a young woman whose battered body is found in snowy mountainous terrain on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The somewhat scrambled investigation that ensues is conducted by a disillusioned tribal policeman (Graham Greene), an eager but young and ill-prepared FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife hunter/tracker (Jeremy Renner) who found the body while tracking wolves that have been preying on local livestock.
There’s a lively generic setup in all that, but Wind River delivers a good deal more than the conventional satisfactions, including some uncommon twists of emphasis in what may sound at first like a routinely familiar tale. And those twists, I hasten to add, have less to do with plot than with matters of character.
Hunter/tracker Cory Lambert (Renner) has less official cachet than the characters played by Olsen and Greene, but even as a kind of volunteer assistant, he’s the story’s crucial figure. His knowledge of the land and the local wildlife is part of it, but his hunter/tracker gifts (and his awareness of his own flaws and limitations) extend into his understanding and concern for the people and tattered communities he encounters.
Lambert serves as a temporary mentor for Agent Banner (Olsen). And he has an assortment of variously tangled relationships with Wind River people, including his estranged wife, Wilma (Julia Jones), the wayward brother (Martin Sensmeier) of the murdered girl, and the grieving father of both, a heartbroken warrior named Martin (Gil Birmingham) who is Lambert’s oldest and perhaps best friend, and seemingly his true soulmate in some very ancient sense of that term.
Renner and Birmingham’s scenes together, one early and one late, are emotional high points in a film that thrives on the closely observed, understated emotions of more than a dozen of its characters. The wonderfully weird musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis enhances the film’s sidelong emotional power as well.