This is my kind of thriller — one which presents a genuine mystery at its outset, slowly builds not just suspense but solid, intriguing characterizations and situational complexity before exploding into jarring, thoroughly believable action. The action, when it finally arrives, is brutal and ugly, but it certainly isn’t exploitive or gratuitous. And everything that precedes that action, and everything that follows it, tells a compelling, sometimes heartbreaking story. It’s a terrific movie.
Taylor Sheridan’s film beautifully utilizes its Wyoming (actually Utah) locations to encompass its seemingly simple story: a young woman is found, barefoot and frozen to death, and the local police investigate. Then it gets complicated: the woman is an Indian, found on an Indian reservation, which makes it a federal matter. Young, inexperienced FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned the case, but needs the help of a Fish and Wildlife Dept. tracker, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), to make sense of the death, which may not be the suicide it appears. Lambert’s past influences his actions, as does his relationships with local Shoshone and Arapaho folk (Gil Birmingham, Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene, Julia Jones, etc.), but he is the only person to truly sense how events are unfolding around them.
Sheridan, the screenwriter of Sicario and Hell and High Water, adds directing to his resumé with this project, and does so skillfully. One transition in particular, an editing jump that explains the central mystery just as the action is about to explode, is incredibly effective. And the performances are top-rate, especially from Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham as men who unwillingly share one of the worst feelings anyone could experience. Sheridan’s screenplay is exquisite, giving room for its characters to breathe while gradually narrowing its focus to the mystery and what it means to everyone involved.
This unheralded gem of a movie is one of the finest of the year. At times it is difficult to watch, for it depicts the worst that people can be — but its greatest strength is that it also depicts the best that people can be, as well as everything in between. Inspired by true events and highlighting the legal cesspool of rules involving crimes committed on Indian reservations (and who has the responsibility to prosecute them), Wind River is a movie to treasure this year. ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2. 20 September 2017.