OP-ROB RATING: ALL-STAR
“Wind River” is a 2017 mystery-thriller written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. The film is set entirely on the Wind River Indian Reservation in remote Wyoming, and stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a United States Fish and Wildlife Service agent whose primary job is hunting down harmful predators such as coyotes and mountain lions. On one of his tracking missions Lambert finds the dead body of a young Indian woman out on the frozen tundra, miles from any shelter and without shoes on. Lambert immediately identifies signs of foul play, and also recognizes the girl as a resident of the reservation. He also reports the discovery to Ben (Graham Greene) the wryly intuitive chief of tribal police. To streamline the investigation, Ben contacts the FBI.
Subsequently, Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) rolls into the reservation with little more than a windbreaker. She chatters in the cold, explaining that she was the closest agent to Wind River having been stationed in Las Vegas. After getting properly outfitted and scoping the evidence, Banner realizes she needs Lambert to help her solve the case, and she convinces him to help. With Lambert onboard the rest of the film plays out clue-by-clue, which leads to surprisingly dark corners of the Wind River reservation and beyond. The film is a directorial debut for Sheridan, but he has written the films “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water”. Similar to those earlier films, “Wind River” has western roots and ultimately boils down to heroes, villains, and justice. However, as people who have seen his earlier written films will know, Sheridan’s neo-western style is anything but blatant when it comes to plot. And with this outing he has swapped the more typical dusty landscapes of Texas and Mexico for the near-arctic conditions of central Wyoming.
For a directorial debut, “Wind River” is impressive but not without a few glaring faults. For example, more than a few scenes are dominated by a crippling need to display cowboy machismo. As exemplified by his actions, Lambert is a grit-n-grind badass, yet many scenes have swaths of extra dialogue hammering that in. Further on the point of dialogue, the film simply has too much. Many scenes don’t need explanation yet the characters talk anyway. The visuals have the potency to drive the narrative, yet Sheridan insists on telling us everything anyway. “Wind River” could learn a thing or two from the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece “No Country for Old Men”, which does an excellent job of showing rather than explaining. One of the first scenes in “No Country” sets up the premise by showing a hunter stumbling upon a suitcase full of drug money. The sequence is near silent, save for the barren hum of the open plains. “Wind River” also takes place out west, and Sheridan could easily replace redundant clue-discussion for the sound of icy Wyoming wind. In the same fashion, “Wind River” has an overlong ending it mistakes for thoroughness. After the thrilling climax of the film, there are multiple scenes wrapping up every loose end with even more talking.
Save for the occasionally over-saturated scenes, “Wind River” is as exhilarating as its harsh backdrop. The ample murder-mystery plotline is supplemented with a great performance by Renner, and an even more compelling one from Olsen. Who knew? Also, as far as pure thrill, “Wind River” pushes you to the edge of your seat more than a few times. In one scene that jolts the senses, Banner is blasted with pepper spray before rushing into a junkie-infested trailer, near-blind. It reminded me a bit of the pulse-pounding culmination of “Silence of the Lambs” in which Agent Starling enters Buffalo Bill’s lair.
Taken as a whole, “Wind River” is a brisk addition to the late-summer movie round up. The fact that it also bears an overarching message about living conditions on Indian reservations is a surprising, and research-worthy gesture. As hard-hitting as the land it takes place on, “Wind River” is rock-solid viewing for folks who enjoy a thrilling murder-mystery with a subtle dash of Western attitude.