In a summer filled with big budget bombs, it’s refreshing to come across a film that relies on story and emotion rather than super powers and CGI to connect with a crowd. One such standout in the latter moments of summer is Wind River, a dark murder mystery as far from light and shiny as you can get.
The film centers on the death of a young Native American woman named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) on the desolate wintery landscape of the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. Discovered by stoic local tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the case starts to unravel deeper emotional woes in the primarily Native American community. It doesn’t take much to realize that this was no case of being ill prepared for the climate, as the woman had wounds consistent with an assault and had run barefoot for miles before succumbing to the natural effects of exposure. The loss clearly affects Lambert, whose bond to the woman is just the first layer peeled back on a deeper sorrow that has permanently affected his life.
With a snowstorm fast approaching, the FBI is called in and a junior agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) appears from the Las Vegas office, a true fish-out-of-water ill prepared not only for the elements outdoors, but also for the world she just walked into. She serves the viewpoint of the audience, plopped into a land filled with loss and grief all around with people dealing with little options who mostly just try to survive. If that message wasn’t clear enough, the local reservation police chief (Graham Greene) drives that home with platitudes like, “This isn’t a land of waiting for back up. This is the land of you’re on your own” and talk of driving 50 miles to go five miles.
Banner is a young agent with passion for the case, who quickly realizes she’s in over her head both with the culture and how the bureaucratic system is set up to let Natalie become another statistic. So she turns to Lambert for assistance, with the tracker having his own reasons for joining the search. Their pairing starts off a little abrasive, but there’s a trust earned there over time and a comfort level where Lambert eventually reveals why he is so drawn to the case.
While writer/director Taylor Sheridan doesn’t really present the viewer with many twists and turns in the case and the actual reveal is not overly surprising as things are laid out, he does deliver a slow burn of a film building heightened suspense to the climactic final battle and a cathartic payoff that feels carefully crafted and well earned.
Sheridan also delves into the crushing loss of youth and hope in a brutal land and the introspection of how to deal with that. There’s an excellent supporting turn by Gil Birmingham as Natalie’s grieving father and a brief but pivotal appearance by Jon Bernthal as Natalie’s significant other, but the real heart of this movie is Renner’s Lambert, looking at the case as a possibility for a redemption that may never come, and Olsen, whose passion, empathy and survival instinct help in the fight to find the truth and get justice in the case.
The director also uses the barren but beautiful landscape to help build the vibe, much like he did with fellow Western-set dramas Sicario and Hell or High Water. Add in a Nick Cave / Warren Ellis score that works effective well, and Wind River is one of the year’s more rewarding watches and worth seeking out.
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Posted By: Ari Coine