Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has made quite a name for himself in recent years with works that feel authentic and a bit deeper than your typical crime dramas. There’s a dedication to capturing a sense of place and the relationships among the people that live in a specific location, almost to the point where it feels the crime at hand is less important than the people involved in committing and/or solving it. With SICARIO and the recently Oscar-nominated screenplay for HELL OR HIGH WATER, Sheridan showed us that those breaking the law were almost more interesting than those upholding it. After many years not directing, Sheridan returns to helm in first film in many years with WIND RIVER, a richly drawn Sundance favorite set on a Native American Reservation.
WIND RIVER certainly captures the underserved community within the reservation—from resources to ample law enforcement—and although the plot involves the rape and murder of a young Native woman found in the middle of a snow-covered field where she had clearly run miles in bare feet and not enough protection from the elements, the true purpose of the film is clearly to give us a glimpse into a community that has been alternately abused and ignored for centuries.
Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a local hunter who tracks and kills predatory animals that threaten people and livestock on the reservation. He discovers the body while tracking a family of mountain lions, and he recognizes the woman immediately as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) because her father, Martin (Gil Birmingham) is one of his best friends. Cory used to be married to Wilma (Julia Jones), a Native woman, whom he now shares custody of their son (Teo Briones).
With the reservation police in short supply (represented here by Officer Ben, played by the legendary Graham Greene), and since the murder technically took place on federal land, the FBI is called in in the form of Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a relatively new investigator who arrives in a windbreaker and the wrong type of footwear to walk in knee-deep snow. She recruits Lambert to capture a different type of predator, and the two form an uneasy alliance with the common goal of giving Natalie some version of justice.
WIND RIVER moves through its environments with an unflinching eye for detail. The film often feels as emotionally cold as the landscapes it portrays, and it doesn’t shy away from casting its gaze at the troubles with drugs and alcohol on the reservation. But it also doesn’t skim over the path that Lambert took to earn the trust of the residents for whom he works. He and his wife broke up not long after the death of their daughter under sickening circumstances that too closely resemble what happened to Natalie. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more in the grip of a character played by Renner in his career. His quiet, understated performance perfectly captures what a natural-born tracker would be like—and observer who quietly transforms into a man of action, not wasting time with too many words.
Writer-director Sheridan isn’t afraid to linger in a scene longer than most would. He wants us to get to know the people who occupy this disturbing story, and will give all of his actors a little more dialogue just to shine a little more light into their souls. Banter is just as important to him as exposition, and this process results in a haunting series of character studies. Working with director of photography Ben Richardson (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD), Sheridan breathes as much of the natural elements into his characters as he features in the landscape photography; the result is a group of characters that seems born of their surroundings.
The great Jon Bernthal shows up late in the film as Natalie’s mystery boyfriend (I won’t give away his importance to the film, but we know early on he’s not her attacker), and does what he does best—he shows up for one of the most important moments in the film, and when it’s over, nothing can ever be the same.
WIND RIVER is a film about several complicated relationships, including ones between man and nature; between Native Americans and everyone else. It’s an exercise in great storytelling, character development, superior acting, and establishing a sense of location that brings us unsettlingly close to facing our own prejudices. There are a few jumps in logic as the investigators inch closer to uncovering the events that led to Natalie’s death, but nothing that comes close to derailing this powerful work of intensity.