The Native American reservation of Wind River is as far from perfect as one could imagine, a destitute landscape of snow and silence where forgotten people can’t rely on luck…they survive or die. But the inhabitants there can still dream of better places. They can make their way if they fight for it.
The film opens with a thoughtful young woman’s voice-over reading a poem about “a meadow in my perfect world” while we watch on the screen a battered young woman running for her life across a deadly nighttime landscape of moonlight snow and sub-zero winds. It’s another fifteen minutes or so before we witness her body discovered days later by Cory Lambert (an Oscar-worthy Jeremy Renner), a game-and-wildlife tracker hunting a lioness on the reservation, who has his own tragic past that casts a shadow on the current events. In to town comes a green but game FBI agent (a fabulous Elizabeth Olsen, evoking a young, steely Michelle Pfeiffer), who along with the reservation police force (lead by a stoically sardonic Graham Greene) and our determined tracker forms a posse to catch the predator who drove the young woman out into the cold and her ultimate death.
Writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s neo-noir meditation on grief and resilience is a brutal and beautiful thing that also operates on the surface level as a rip-snorting crime drama/police procedural which satisfies our hunger for the perverse while defying our expectations with novelistic depth of back-story and character. Like Sheridan’s other superb screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, there’s black, white, and shades of grey in Wind River, and justice doesn’t come easy when everyone has a story to tell. His first time directing his own script, Sheridan forms a triptych with those recent films, painting a blistering look at an America (from the treacherous borderlands of Sicario to the forgotten lowlands of Texas in Hell or High Water to the snow-capped wastelands of Wyoming in Wind River) come undone by drugs and economic inequality, and how ramshackle law-and-order (in ways both spiritually corrupt and organically valiant) tries to bring balance to an unbalanced world. There’s an unexpectedly rich humanism at play in his work, more so apparent in Wind River than any previous venture, solidifying Sheridan’s status as one of the most insightful voices in American cinema today.
Wind River is riddled with as much white-knuckle suspense as it is deep dialogue that allows the story and characters to unfold like a flower blooming in the harshest of terrains. Sheridan coaxes layered performances from a willing cast that includes the amazing Gil Birmingham, last seen as the long-suffering partner to Jeff Bridge’s memorable Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water, who plays the grieving father or the murdered young woman. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide an appropriately evocative score, while Ben Richardson’s cinematography creates an indellible sense of place. In the end, the audience is treated to a dose of harsh justice, with a glimmer of hope.
Wind River is expert level stuff, as entertaining as it is enlightening, and it’s not to be missed.
Written by David H. Schleicher