Wind River, the location, is a Native American reservation high in the bone-white Wyoming wilderness – a place of “snow and silence”, as cory lambert (jeremy renner), a local game tracker, evocatively puts it. His words, like his wide-brimmed hat and pistol, call to mind Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and any number of other snowbound cowboy yarns – and at first, Taylor Sheridan’s new film looks as if it may be jockeying to join their ranks.
But for what’s being positioned as his ‘serious’ directorial debut – a little-seen 2011 horror called Vile apparently doesn’t qualify – the writer of Hell or High Water and Sicario has instead made what might be described as a film neige: a noir in which the narrow alleyways and slinking fog have given way to empty, ash-grey plains and groves of birch and spruce, but where the loyalties are every bit as murky, and the bite of isolation just as fierce.
It’s Lambert who discovers her dead body, far from the nearest man-made structure, while he’s hunting a mountain lion that’s been worrying the local livestock.
One peculiar detail – despite the thick snow for miles around, she isn’t wearing any shoes – gnaws at his mind, even as FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is scrambled from Las Vegas to assume control of the case. When she arrives, her hire car tyres churning slush, this slight young woman conspicuously does not belong among Lambert and his wind-beaten companions in the Indian tribal police already casing the crime scene. But Wind River is a film about this landscape’s hard indifference towards all who trudge across it – and Sheridan’s beady, inquisitive script scrutinises all its characters’ credentials in turn.
Lambert, though he married a Native American woman (Julia Jones), is an obvious interloper – as are, in a very different way, the group of men who live and work on an oil well up on the mountainside, but still within the reservation’s bounds. Even the Native Americans themselves are corralled here: in the olden days, Lambert explains they used to migrate elsewhere when the winter became too harsh. Now, they have to stay put.
As such, it’s never quite clear who’s in charge, and this uncertainty becomes one of Wind River’s tangiest sources of tension as the investigation into the girl’s death plays out. The FBI (in the person of Banner), the tribal police, the county cops, private security contractors: all can and do makes plausible claims of jurisdiction. But when it comes down to it – and during some blistering, Sam Peckinpah-like set-pieces, in which the bullets strike with the force of thunderbolts, it most emphatically does – they’re just people with guns in the middle of nowhere, each ready to fight their corner to the bitterest of ends.
The one dependable alliance is Lambert and Banner’s: he becomes her de facto partner in a way that recalls Sicario’s uneasier cooperation between by-the-book law enforcement and insider expertise from the shadows. (In fact if Sheridan hadn’t written that film himself, you might accuse some of this one’s third-act manoeuvres of paying a little too faithful homage.)
Still, the director deserves some kind of prize purely for working out how best to use Renner, who gives his subtlest, most rivetingly individual performance in years here. As a hunter, Lambert is sharply attuned to the hostility of this terrain – but that awareness is compounded by a heartbreaking event in his own past, and seeing justice done in this case becomes a way of salving his soul’s still-gaping wounds.
Renner’s work is all the more moving for its hunched-over matter-of-factness – a beautifully modulated conversation with the dead girl’s grieving father (Gil Birmingham) is the moment it clicks into place. But there’s no doubt he benefits both from having Olsen’s own carefully calibrated performance to play against – Banner’s composure often feels like a tied-down tarpaulin flapping madly under gale-force winds – and also Sheridan’s refusal to prod their relationship down the expected route. Wind River confirms the director as a rising talent who can be trusted to beat his own enticing path through inhospitable ground.
the big question is – academy awards? i don’t think so, such any early release, but it depends on how it is received. renner should get a nomination for best actor and so should sheridan for best director, but it’s going to be hard to break through the ranks of films such as darkest hour, the papers, the greatest showman, suburbicon and dunkirk.
this is a must see film, a riveting final film of the trilogy of sicario, hell or high water and this film. this is jeremy renner’s best performance in his career (at least on par with the town & the hurt locker) and is one of the best films of the summer, nei the year.
rating: ★★★★★ (96%)