In Wind River, Jeremy Renner plays a hunter and tracker trying to solve the murder of a Native American teenager.
America’s wilderness has always been a fertile landscape for filmmakers, providing a backdrop for everything from classic westerns to 2016’s Texas-based sleeper hit Hell or High Water.
That film was penned by actor and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who now writes and directs Wind River, a noir thriller set in one of the most remote places in the America’s hinterland - the Wyoming Indian Reservation that gives the movie its name.
This vast unforgiving tract of snow-covered mountains is mainly populated by wolves and mountain lions.
With temperatures well below zero and capable of killing a human, it is not a place to be out running barefoot in the snow in the middle of the night.
That, however, is where we find Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), a teenage Native American woman in the film’s opening scene. She is desperately, and forlornly fleeing from an unknown menace.
Natalie’s body is discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a local hunter and tracker with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who knows the wilderness better than anyone.
Cory’s connection to the girl, who he suspects was murdered, is personal as he knows her father Martin (Gil Birmingham) and can empathise with his loss due to suffering a trauma that caused him to split from his Native American wife Wilma (Julia Jones).
Cory and Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene), are joined in investigating the case by an ill-prepared F.B.I. agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen).
Despite struggling with the sub-zero temperatures and the community’s mistrust of an outsider, Jane shares Cory and Ben’s determination to get justice for Martin’s daughter.
Their efforts are complicated by the nature of Natalie’s death - having technically been killed by the cold, the case cannot be officially declared a homicide, enabling the F.B.I. to send a full investigative team.
As a result, Cory, Ben and Jane have to piece together the events that led to her running through the icy wilderness miles from human habitation.
What follows is a traditional film-noir murder mystery - we meet Natalie’s brother (Martin Sensmeier), who has fallen in with violent drug addicts, and learn of an older boyfriend with a connection to a remote oil station.
Cory’s tracking skills and local knowledge combines with Jane’s persistence to gradually delve beneath the thick snow and discover why and how she died.
In one of his best roles to date, Renner is reserved and commanding yet fragile, as his character’s world-weary melancholy contrasts well with the enthusiasm of Olsen’s young agent.
The film’s Native American cast members, who include Birmingham and Sensmeier, deliver strong, emotional performances that lend an authenticity to their depiction of Wind River’s community and its problems and strengths.
But the film’s real star is the Wyoming landscape - beautiful yet destructive, alluring but restrictive to its residents - many of whom, both white and Native American are torn between their ties to the area and a desire to move on in search of greater opportunities.
Despite its merits though, Wind River is not quite on a par with Sheridan’s screenwriting efforts on Hell or High Water or 2015’s Sicario.
There’s a feeling of abruptness to the editing that leaves promising themes unexplored as the film winds towards its climax and later scenes feel hurried in a way that its sweeping opening does not.
While Sheridan’s second feature as a director is a qualified success, one can’t help but think a more experienced filmmaker may have elevated Wind River from good to great.
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