While visiting the Wind River Native American Reservation in Wyoming during the dead of winter with his son, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife service tracker, comes upon the body of Natalie Hanson from the reserve, barefoot, frostbitten, frozen to death, and with signs on her of a violent sexual assault. Joining Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), an FBI investigator out of her element, and Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene), he sets out to find whoever is responsible for the murder, motivated by a similar tragedy in his past.
Taylor Sheridan directed this film, and he’s mostly known as an actor and the writer of acclaimed films like Sicario and Hell or High Water. And like Hell or High Water, this film has a lot of atmosphere that transports you to the bleak, cold environment. The film does a great job of setting the scene and realistically portraying everyday life in such conditions. It’s raw too in the way the investigation plays out, brutal and uncomfortable, character-driven, and hinging on emotionality, which sets it apart from basic procedural plots. There’s an emphasis on how small and contained the undertaking is, especially when Jane learns she can’t bring in FBI reinforcement because the cause of death wasn’t technically homicide. Sheridan is definitely a good storyteller, and also good at the practical side of filmmaking. One particular strength is in his shooting intensity in which he uses quick cuts when in the build-up to an action scene to better keep the audience on its toes. He really likes to play with the audience, evidenced by one clever bait-and-switch technique in the last act. The action scenes are very visceral too, and the cinematography overall quite excellent.
This is a very deep story to be carried by two Avengers, but they manage it well. Jeremy Renner’s performance as Cory is reserved, strong, and instinctive, and he plays the character’s tracking knowledge exceptionally, even while putting on a northern accent. He reminds me somewhat of Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea, with his at times introverted behaviour and tragic past. But unlike in that film, he’s still very active and all the more motivated. When that past comes up, it’s related with tremendous subtle passion. Indeed this is one of Renner’s best performances, but the one major problem is that Renner probably shouldn’t have played the part. Cory would make much more sense, with his close connection to the Reservation and the nature of his loss, if he was played by a Native American actor. His ethnicity doesn’t come into play at all, except for one scene where he’s insulted for being white, and given the subject matter, an indigenous lead would have been a lot more fitting. It doesn’t help that this casting gives the movie an unintended “white saviour” motif. I wish Wind River had taken the risk to cast a lesser known Native American lead.
Elizabeth Olsen is great too, as the unprepared FBI agent who’s nonetheless incredibly invested in the case. Her relationship with Cory is one of the best non-romantic partnerships I’ve seen since Broadchurch, which this movie also reminds me of. Graham Greene’s performance of a serious and committed yet also snarky police chief may be one of my favourites of the year -he’s just so likeable. There are also really good performances from Gil Birmingham as Natalie’s emotionally distraught father Martin, Kelsey Chow as Natalie herself, Julia Jones as Cory’s ex-wife, and Martin Sensmeier as Natalie’s brother Chip. Additionally, Apesanahkwat and Tantoo Cardinal make cameo appearances.
Wind River is clearly a raising-awareness movie and it’s a very effective one. The film opens with text describing it as “inspired by true events” because it can stand in for any number of cases. But there’s also a wider undercurrent theme on the economic state of Native American Reserves and the believed social limitations this absence of prosperity fosters. In one scene, Chip, a drug addict, directly blames the state of his life on his environment, which Cory counters by reminded him of all the potential he had, as opposed to the life he chose. It’s one of the few scenes his whiteness intentionally shows through, and possibly prevents him from really understanding Chip’s perspective.
This is an absolutely fantastic film that really does need to be seen. Though the casting of Renner may have been the wrong choice and there are a few other problems (Cory’s son vanishes from the story unexpectedly never to return), it’s one of the best movies this year. The performances are all exemplary, the characters compelling, the mystery gripping, and the smart directing superb. Wind River should be showing in way more cinemas than it is, especially in Canada, but for now it’s certainly worth going out of your way to find.