A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2017

WIND RIVER jjjj

2017, R, 107 mins.

 

Elizabeth Olsen as Jane Banner  /  Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert  /  Jon Bernthal as Matt  /  Martin Sensmeier as Chip  /  Julia Jones as Wilma Lambert  /  Graham Greene as Ben  /  Kelsey Asbille as Natalie Hanson  /  Matthew Del Negro as Dillon

Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan

 

 

 

The new fact-based murder mystery thriller WIND RIVER once again champions screenwriter Taylor Sheridan as a soulful and talented force in American cinema, especially for how he deals with flawed and tragic characters set against the foreboding backdrop of frontier life.  

His previous screenplays - whether it be the drug thriller SICARIO or last year's superbly rendered modern western HELL OR HIGH WATER (for which he rightfully received a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination) - are all thoughtfully humanistic in terms of honing in on wounded personas that battle with their own respective personal demons and anxieties.  His two previous films and now WIND RIVER (which he also directs in his feature film debut) form a penetratingly enthralling thematic connective tissue as a direct result, creating a pseudo western trilogy arc.  Even though they all follow decidedly different narratives and settings, this trio of films nevertheless have a commonality is showcasing Sheridan as a master of literate thrillers that pack a visceral punch. 

 

 

Gone is the sun bleached and inhospitably dry vistas of the southern U.S. in HELL OR HIGH WATER, which WIND RIVER supplants with the frigidly cold artic tundra of Wyoming.  Sheridan creates a compelling visual foil here from his previous scripted effort, but his characters in both films seem equally haunted and obsessively driven.  Set specifically in the Wind River Indian reservation, the film opens shockingly with the eerie sight of a young Native woman - apparently fleeing for her life while running barefoot and partially exposed in the snow - that eventually succumbs to the cold and freezes to death.  She's later discovered to be a local 18-year old resident of the reservation (Kelsey Asbille) by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Cory Lambert (in a career high performance of soft spoken power by Jeremy Renner).  While he inspects the body he begins to easily suggest that there is more to her death than freezing, which is evident by the appearance of blood around her groin.   

Cory seems to have a deeply rooted and initially unrevealed personal stake in perusing the actual culprits of this heinous crime, and more so than his occupational duties of ensuring the safety of the reservation and its livestock from hostile wildlife.  Seeing as there is enough reasonable foul play to involve the FBI, a rookie agent shows up in the form of Jane Banner (a dependably stalwart Elizabeth Olson), a Florida native stationed in Las Vegas that clearly has never been assigned a case in subzero conditions, let alone has lived in such climates.  Jane makes up for her naiveté about her new environment by being headstrong and unwaveringly determined to get to the bottom of this murder, even though the indigenous locals consider her a joke.  Realizing that she'll require the expert tracking services of Cory, he agrees to team up with this FBI greenhorn to find the guilty party before the blowing winds and snow cover up all available evidence.    

WIND RIVER, as mentioned, has the aura of a mythical western set in contemporary society, but it creates a whole other immersive layer of intrigue in exploring a region of America that infrequently gets explored in movies.  Working with the brilliant cinematographer Ben Richardson (whom created the ethereally hypnotic and rugged expanses of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD), Sheridan creates a chilly verisimilitude  throughout WIND RIVER that allows you to feel every flake of snow and every footprint hitting it while the wintry howls of wind seem to be penetrating the lungs of these shivering characters.  You gain a sense throughout the film that this unforgivable environment reeks havoc on everyone's mind, body, and soul to the point where they don't believe they'll even escape this untamable weather.  People here don't try to conquer these conditions, but rather just try to eek out an existence in, as one character puts it, "the silence and snow." 

Sheridan matches his evocative eye for visuals here with his intuitive knack for investing in all his characters that populate this film.  In WIND RIVER we get a highly sobering wakeup call to reservation life and how these people live on societal margins, often having to fend for themselves while deeply distrusting any encroaching white person (with Cory being the exception).  The film is also highly rare as far as whodunit thrillers are concerned in the sense that it's somewhat less obligated by its police procedural elements and is more invested in individual characters and their respective arcs of redemptive change.  The overall scripting trajectory favors a slow burn approach to relaying all of the particulars of the crime (sans one late flashback scene that explicitly spells out what exactly happened to that murdered girl), and Sheridan's trusting of his audience's attention spans and patience with his material is refreshing.  The gradual build-up of simmering tension over the course of WIND RIVER pays off handsomely, especially when the film erupts into volcanic bursts of violence later on that's legitimately jolting and well earned. 

Sheridan is an economical poet with dialogue as well, especially for how he lets his plainspoken characters speak minimally with few works, but with few words that are richly textured all on their own and speak volumes towards the shared misery of these people.  No more is this true than with a few key supporting players, like Graham Greene's pragmatically spoken reservation sheriff that's seen so much heartache and misery during his life that he hardly needs to embellish it with words when a melancholic stare says it all.   Especially potent is Gil Birmingham in a small, but emotionally ravaging role as the victim's deeply proud and outwardly stoic, but inwardly distressed father.  He also appeared in HELL OR HIGH WATER giving one of the most brutally honest monologues in recent movie history as his law enforcement officer lamented on how his people have been uprooted for centuries by white interests.  Birmingham is only in a few scenes in WIND RIVER, but when he appears he commands the camera and our interest in ways that few supporting actors are able to. 

The exemplarily smart writing extends to, of course, the lead characters as well, and I admired Sheridan's tactful restraint in his handling of the relationship between the FBI agent and her tracker partner.  Jane and Cory are most definitely cut from different cloths and are both limitlessly cunning people, but they also have a shared understanding that they respectively need each other's skill sets to see the murder case through to successful fruition and finality.  Plus, Sheridan resists  obligatory genre and scripting contrivances of having the pair hit it off romantically.  There's very little room for a developing intimate relationship in WIND RIVER between these two.  More thoughtfully, they're just two professionals that need to work together to get the job done.  The fact that they're attractive members of the opposite sex is redundant.   

The performances by Olson and Renner are paramount to Sherdian's end game here, and the former in particular has this manner of playing Jane with a steely eyed gumption and unwaveringly confident drive that allows her character to come off as more credibly and well rounded than other similar female characters would have in lesser films.  Renner matches his AVENGERS' co-star's vigor and presence as well by crafting one of his most quietly impactful performances of arguably his career.  Cory, superficially at least, has the profile and mug of a rough and rugged outdoorsman, and Renner certainly plays him up to such masculine bravado.  Yet, he also imbues in Cory an introverted vulnerability that's steeped in personal tragedy that he can never shake.  When this world weary man tearfully relays to Jane his reasons for joining her on their case it's one of the most searing and soul crushing speeches of the film.  Renner's careful and minimalist approach in scene after scene like this in WIND RIVER highlights why a less-is-more tone often hits the right emotional chords in a film. 

I haven't really spoken in vast detail about the particulars of the central murder mystery investigation in the story, which would be best left unspoken and experienced upon viewing the film.  WIND RIVER isn't an ostentatiously showy thriller that attracts Academy Award nomination recognition, nor is it the stuff of late summer film season releases, but that's precisely why I so immensely admired it.  Sheridan's film is so atypically disciplined, literate, and measured in execution, which is why it works so resolutely and potently well as a solid continuation of his work on HELL OR HIGH WATER and SICARRIO.  Even when WIND RIVER manages to achieve a level of closure with its main storyline, it still reminds viewers - with a sparse, yet pointed title card - at the end that the FBI doesn't maintain statistics on missing aboriginal women, whose numbers remain unknown.  That shocking indictment - placed overtop of the sad image of Cory and the slain girl's father overlooking isolated and bleak reservation land - achieves a level of stinging truth that so few films endings from 2017 have, which makes WIND RIVER not only one of the summer season's best and overlooked offerings, but also one of the year's finest films. 

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