“Wind River” opens with a bang — literally. The first scene, a guaranteed tough watch for animal lovers, introduces us to Fish & Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Cory is performing the lone sniper-like duties of his job, picking off a pack of livestock-hungry wolves one by one with his high-powered rifle. It sets the tone for the rest of the film, a story of savagery, loneliness, and slow burning pursuit.
When Cory discovers the dead body of a local native American teenage deep in the rugged Wyoming wilderness, the FBI calls up rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to lead the investigation simply because she’s close to the area. The pair work together with local law enforcement to track down clues in an attempt to solve the mystery of the potential homicide. This is a deliberately paced thriller, with clues slowly unfolding to reveal the completed puzzle. The entire story feels a bit like an extended episode of “True Detective,” especially when the film insists on following a straightforward crime drama formula and timeline. But for nearly every piece that’s solved, there’s a sudden outbreak of bloody violence.
Fans of writer / director Taylor Sheridan will quickly note the very similar themes (and even scenes) from his earlier work. This is a clear celebration of rugged masculinity in our hero as well as a savage tale of violence among men. As with his other screenplays, this one is beautifully and authentically written, a story of uncompromising brutality and human insight. The dialogue is heartfelt and genuine; when a father learns his daughter has been raped and has died, he just asks to “sit here and miss her for a minute.” Anyone who has ever had to deal with unforeseen grief can relate.
These are fully developed characters that are naturally (and simply) written, which means it’s up to the audience to fill in many of the blanks as to their motivations, desires and back story. This is a major part of what works about this film; these characters are not completely spelled out, making them all the more human. (It’s also partly what fails in the story too: there are several bothersome plot details that are overlooked and ignored altogether, like a possible connection between the similar deaths of two teenage girls several years apart).
Sheridan is also behind the camera on this feature, and he has a particularly good eye for choreographed tension and violent action sequences. He’s also skilled at picking a talented crew that compliments his material in both the content and setting. The film’s appropriately somber, ominous score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) is absolute perfection. The main bloody shootout scene and the snowy, desolate setting is gorgeously photographed by Ben Richardson.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t a few directorial choices that will divide audiences (such as a major flashback scene where we are shown the factual events in a bloody, disturbing, unflinching look at the crime, including a graphic rape).
But this is more than just a competent directorial debut for Sheridan. While it’s not as well directed as the films he simply wrote (“Sicario,” “Hell or High Water”) and it’s certainly not as commercially accessible to the average moviegoing public, it’s impressive nonetheless.
This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.