With Wind River, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan brings a kind of “American Tragedy” crime trilogy to a successful close. But more than Sicario or Hell or High Water, Wind River (which Sheridan also directed) has a mournful, grief-stricken through line that gives the film more emotional heft than either of his previous scripts.
Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a divorced father who works for the government on and around the Wind River Indian Reservation, tracking and wiping out local livestock predators. In the course of his job he stumbles across the dead body of Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a local Native American girl. For reasons which we eventually learn, Lambert has a personal connection to the girl, and agrees to help under-prepared FBI agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) navigate the clues left in the snow as to what happened to Natalie.
And what exactly happened to Natalie is a complicated issue indeed: the coroner confirms she’s been violently assaulted, but what killed her was running for miles in sub-zero temperatures, the freezing air causing her lungs to rupture and drowning Natalie in her own blood. Therefore the coroner can’t legally call it a murder, and if it’s not a murder Banner has no jurisdiction on the reservation. She and Lambert have a small window of time to locate Natalie’s killer or killers before she becomes a forgotten statistic, and their journey through a bitter, fucked-over community that’s beset by predators both within and without has a guilt-ridden, ticking-clock quality that never lets up. It moves toward a nerve-wracking climax that seems to erupt out of nowhere, but in retrospect feels totally earned and authentic.
Wind River is an intense thriller, but what surprises is just how intimate and overwhelmingly emotional it is. This reviewer spent nearly its entire running time choked up or on the verge of tears, so pervasive is the emotion underlying every scene. Renner has never been better, aging here into a place of sadness and gravitas that serves the role perfectly. Olsen turns in fine work here as well, supported by familiar but too-frequently backgrounded faces such as Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal. As Natalie’s grieving father, Gil Birmingham is unforgettable, all burning, haunting rage. The snowy landscapes are beautifully rendered by cinematographer Ben Richardson, and the score by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis is note perfect, offering no respite from the grief that pervades the story. When the credits roll, the film feels of a piece with the dread and inevitability at the heart of such ‘90s classics as Silence of the Lambs and One False Move.
Folks are going to want to call out Wind River for putting a white male at the emotional center of a film about the rape and murder of a Native American girl. Sheridan somewhat cannily makes this issue part of the story. Cutting the familiar figure of a classic cowboy, Lambert seems well aware of his own outdated, problematic nature, and that his job of “taming the frontier” no longer has a whole lot of nobility attached to it. (We first see him putting a pair of beautiful wolves in his rifle’s crosshairs and pulling the trigger. Only later do we learn that he’s doing this to keep Native American livestock from being decimated.) Lambert does his best to respect the land and to defer to the people to whom it once belonged; there’s a tender moment in which his half-Arapaho son, beaming with pride over learning to steer a horse, says to his dad “pretty cowboy, huh?” Lambert is quick to correct him, “No, son, it’s a whole lot Arapaho.” But Lambert is also keenly aware of his status as an outsider, and the film finds him pragmatically putting his uniquely destructive abilities to use to help the Arapaho as best he can. He knows his skills, against the grain of nature as they may be, have a use here, so he stays, picking off wolves and tracking mountain lions and helping to catch a killer. His deeds and actions seem to constantly be stating, “I know and respect that this is not my place. Can I help anyway?” One gets the sense that Sheridan, in telling this fact-based story, is putting the same question to himself.