Wind RiverReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/31/17 10:24:16
On the one hand, you've got to wish there were more, meatier roles for Native people in "Wind River"; it's frustrating to see a crime story set on and around the titular reservation so driven by the actions of the white members of its cast. On the other, it's hard to find much fault with the film Taylor Sheridan made on its own merits. It's a smart crime story which lets the audience inside the heads of its investigators and then bides its time before cranking the tension to the max.The film spends most its time following Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who works for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, culling animals that pose a threat to people and livestock. Tracking a mountain lion that mauled one of his ex-father-in-law's cows, he finds the body of his late daughter's best friend Natalie (Kelsey Asbille). He radios Ben, the reservation's chief of police (Graham Greene), who calls in the FBI, which sends Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) from the Las Vegas field office. Young and inexperienced, she figures she's just there to handle the preliminaries until a full team can be sent, but since Natalie's death is not technically a homicide - the girl died of exposure fleeing those who raped and battered her - Jane is on her own, enlisting Cory to help her and Ben because he knows the terrain. Of course, as Cory tells Natalie's father (Gil Birmingham), he's a hunter, not a detective, and he's still carrying a lot of anger around from the unsolved murder of his own daughter three years ago.
After years of making The Hurt Locker look a bit like a case of casting a guy who fit a role perfectly, at least in his most big franchise roles (it is unfortunately easy for a drab Bourne sequel being pushed for months to make one forget The Immigrant as it comes and goes), Jeremy Renner delivers his second genuinely great performance in a row (after Arrival) as the even-keeled hunter who nevertheless harbors a powerful grief and desire for revenge. It's almost seductive how his seeming stability and genuine kindness can make the moments when he quietly wears a worn expression while acting on rage seem almost reasonable, a reminder that our darkest emotions don't always announce themselves with cold fury but seep out because they seem to make sense. It's an interesting pairing with Elizabeth Olsen's green FBI agent, struggling with her self-doubt and staying to master how to use the authority she wields over what are often more experienced people. It's really a supporting role, even if it can get mistaken for a lead because she's got the most screen-time of any woman in the cast, but it's a good one, and Olsen makes the most of it, creating a nice contrast between the fish out of water worried about accidentally giving offense and the smart agent who can follow a trail of clues even if she can't follow a literal trail.
They're supported by a strong cast, with Graham Greene especially fitting perfectly into the role of the fatalistic lawman with a dry, sarcastic sense of humor. Much of the rest of the cast comes and goes as Jane and Cory follow the clues, though Gil Birmingham is always great as the Natalie's father Martin, and separate leads bring the law to a spot populated almost entirely by strong character actors - Hugh Dillon, James Jordan, and Jon Bernthal - and a good group of young Native actors in Kelsey Asbille, Tokala Clifford, Martin Sensmeier. That they switch out highlights that Sheridan's film is not really a mystery or a thriller, but one that uses that sort of story to focus on characters and environment.
In a way, the killer being chased is that environment, a white expanse whose cold exploded the victim's lungs and whose wind covers up the evidence, beautiful but not friendly. It's captured lovingly by Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson, bright and clean but just below the level where it hurts your eyes, with the camera generally still enough that the viewer can see tracks and trails in the distance that could easily be obscured. It's also the backdrop for a couple of exceptionally thrilling moments, including one that gives the audience just exactly enough time to recognize that what's happening is exactly what one might expected, but executed perfectly.Questions of representation aside (it is odd to see on-screen text about missing Native American girls before the end credits when the film was never primarily about that, although it's also worth noting that the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe is listed among the film's production companies), Sheridan makes a strong jump to directing his own scripts after "Sicario" and "Hell or High Water", making him absolutely one to watch as one of contemporary film's most interesting storytellers.
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