Review: ‘Wind River’ a gripping western murder mystery by ‘High Water’ scribe

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Wind River' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Few screenwriters have defined the crime genre in recent years like Taylor Sheridan, penning Oscar-worthy gems “Sicario” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016).

Now, Sheridan makes his directorial debut in the murder mystery “Wind River,” bringing his unique brand of western ruggedness, comedic interludes and crime meditations for a patient yet gripping work that premiered at Sundance before competing for Best Director at Cannes.

In the spirit of transparency of taste, I must lift the mask of objectivity: This is my kind of movie.

The story follows veteran game tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who discovers the body of an 18-year-old Native American named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) in the snow of the Wind River Indian Reservation. She’s barefoot with rape wounds, so the local authorities call FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a keen detective better suited for warm weather.

As a first-time director, Sheridan nails task No. 1: casting. Renner is superb as a seasoned outdoorsman who says more with his face than his mouth. His drive to solve the case is given a believable motive, as the victim was the best friend of his own daughter, who died three years ago under similar circumstances, sparking a divorce with his wife Wilma (Julia Jones).

Thus, Renner bonds with the grieving parents played by Gil Birmingham, who rode shotgun with Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water” (2016), and Tantoo Cardinal, who starred in “Dances with Wolves” (1990). Fans of that film will also recognize Graham Greene from his Oscar nod as Kicking Bird, now providing comic relief as the reservation police chief. His jokes come at the expense of Olsen, who plays her fish-out-of-water city slicker with a likable naiveté.

While these five main roles are perfectly cast, the less-important supporting roles stumble at times. In an early doorway conversation, Renner’s ex-wife says, “I wouldn’t let you drag me back there with a rope,” but it sounds like a stilted attempt to elicit past scars from a cursed location (i.e. “Chinatown”). Likewise, the villain’s flailing, climatic rant is a tad over-the-top.

It’s hard to tell whether these false notes are the result of Sheridan’s inexperience coaching actors or whether his newfound directing duties pulled focus from a final dialogue polish. No matter; these are minor blemishes on a commendable writer/director effort that critics may pick apart like scavengers, but which anyone who’s ever made a film will humbly overlook.

Even if Sheridan is still getting his sea legs as a director, the pacing of editor Gary Roach is impressive, gradually building the tension until the bullets shockingly fly. You’ll recall that Roach edited Denis Villeneuve’s underrated gem “Prisoners” (2013), which opened with Hugh Jackman on a similar hunt as Renner, who guards a flock of sheep from a predatory wolf.

As Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ windy score elicits primal moans of the wild, Sheridan works with cinematographer Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) to paint a Coen-style atmosphere, recalling the bloody snow of “Fargo” (1996) and anthropological critique of “No Country for Old Men” (2007). By the time we reach the climax, it feels like Clint Eastwood taunting Eli Wallach at the end of Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” (1966).

While revenge is deliciously served cold, moviegoers still deserve a warning. Not only are there violent outbursts of gunfire, there is a disturbing flashback of the crime that may not have been necessary, though it succeeds in its primary goal: making us hate the antagonist.

The villain’s motives come into focus in the final showdown, as he tries to justify his sins with the loneliness of his environment. In his twisted mind, he doesn’t care that he’s committing a crime — it’s just something to do. This perverse mindset signifies Sheridan’s commentary on the neo-western genre. Gone are the days of livestock wrangling, replaced by a cycle of drug addiction, poverty and boredom that causes flawed folks to lash out with reckless abandon.

This dovetails horrifically with another theme presented at the end credits: that missing women aren’t reported on Native American reservations. This knowledge adds even more power to the film’s best scene, as Renner consoles Birmingham’s grieving father, urging him to let the pain in, because blocking it could erase every other memory of his late daughter.

What’s left is a thoughtful portrait of grief and survival. “Luck don’t live out here,” Renner says, insisting that animals don’t survive because they’re lucky; they survive out of sheer will. The same goes for Sheridan. He isn’t lucky to get his shot at directing; he has the will to survive in a cutthroat business where “Wind River” marks his harrowing ride through the wilderness.

See where this movie ranks among the year’s best movies in our Fraley Film Guide.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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