If you’re a fan of last year’s excellent modern Western Hell or High Water, you have some big reasons to get yourself into a theater for Wind River.
Taylor Sheridan, who writes and directs, has a wordsmith’s way of capturing American dilemmas on par with the likes of Sam Shepard and Cormac McCarthy. The man knows how to pen a great thriller with depth, and his works—he also wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water—have in common a somber tone. This is a guy who knows that many of the people you pass on the street today are dealing with an eternity of grief and loss. They are making it, but it’s a bitch, and it’s not going to get easier.
Wind River marks Sheridan’s second feature 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 two fierce performances from Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen—yes, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch.
They both offer up career-best work, with Renner searing the screen as Cory, a man with a tragic past, paid to hunt wolves and 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, runs across a clearly freezing nightscape with no shoes on. She’s scared for her life, but we don’t know why. Soon, we will find out.
Cory patrols snow-covered grounds, blowing away wolves from long distances. He’s stoic and level-headed, a quiet man whose emotions never go to a fever pitch, his volume hardly ever changing, no matter what the situation. When Cory discovers the body of the woman we saw in the opening sequence, it’s clear that the woman’s identity strikes a power chord in his heart. It hits all too close to home.
Cory and his ex-wife (Julia Jones) have also lost a child, and they are doing their best to give their living son (Teo Briones) a happy life in the aftermath. Their daughter was the new victim’s best friend, understandably setting something off in Cory. When FBI Jane shows up lost in a snowstorm and looking for answers, he’s more than willing to chip in on the investigation.
Sheridan’s mystery builds from there, as no identity of the murderer is immediately apparent. Since 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 on screen. The conclusion doesn’t feel like a narrative cheat, as so many murder mysteries often do. The conclusion resonates with horror and bleakness. Be assured, you aren’t going to have a typical good time at this movie.
You will, however, be witnessing a remarkable piece of work by Renner. He’s tasked with some of the more difficult, emotionally brutal scenes an actor has had to handle this year. He’s been impressive before (The Hurt Locker), but this takes his stock to a new level. When he recounts the death of his daughter to Jane, you can relate when the story almost knocks her on her ass. I mentioned that Cory is stoic above. That doesn’t mean he’s one-dimensional. Renner finds nuance and power in this character’s quiet pain.
Olsen matches Renner on all fronts, her Jane being a by-the-book type who must make some major adjustments in the field on how to deal with 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, and she’s in it for the long haul. The character goes through many phases in the film’s running time, and Olsen makes all of them intriguing.
Supporting performances from Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham (who also starred in Hell or High Water) round out one of the year’s greater ensemble casts.