Taylor Sheridan follows up his Oscar-nominated script for “Hell or High Water” with the murder-mystery “Wind River,” another tough, gritty thriller rooted in a desolate place few would choose to live. This time out it isn’t economically depressed South Texas, but rather the Wind River Indian Reservation in the frigid snow-covered plains of Wyoming. Life is grim. The lines in the faces are deep. Drugs abound. Opportunity doesn’t knock. As one character says, it’s a “frozen hell of snow and silence,” where everyone seems to have a personal tragedy, including Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a veteran game tracker whose teenage daughter went missing three years earlier.
Sheridan also directs “Wind River,” which is inspired by actual events. It opens with another teenage girl (Kelsey Asbille) terrified as she runs barefoot through the snow, rasping until she eventually collapses and succumbs to the cold. Her turquoise parka stands in sharp contrast to the white of the ground. Six miles deep in the woods, Cory finds her body while hunting a vicious mountain lion.
Still-wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives from Las Vegas to investigate. Jane, pretty, blonde and originally from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, sticks out like red blood on virgin snow. Ignorant about the culture, she isn’t warmly received. She doesn’t even have cold-weather clothes or gear.
The medical examiner (Eric Lange) lists the elements as the girl’s official cause of death, but other signs point to rape and murder. Jane enlists Cory’s help because he knows the land better than anyone. So now he’s searching for a different kind of predator. His motivation comes from not knowing what happened to his own daughter. As the investigation unfolds, the script slowly reveals details about Cory’s daughter.
Sheridan, who also wrote the Mexican drug thriller “Sicario,” still has problems with his characterizations of women. Olsen’s fish-out-of-water agent is a lot like Emily Blunt’s babe-in-the-woods FBI agent. Sheridan puts them in over their heads and gets them to a certain crisis point before abandoning them by suddenly shifting attention toward his leading man (think Benicio Del Toro in “Sicario”) to exact revenge or steal the last laugh.
Sheridan includes a postscript about missing and murdered Native American women, yet his commitment to their plight is undermined by rendering his female characters weak. The mother of the murdered girl is shown cutting herself. Cory’s ex-wife is cold, angry and isolated. In the case of “Wind River,” it’s very much Renner’s picture, and he holds all the cards: Supportive dad to young son, Casey (Teo Briones), amiable ex-husband, expert hunter, fearless friend, and to Jane, a Miyagi-like mentor: “You’re looking for clues, but missing all the signs.” Wax on, wax off.
Adding authenticity is a solid supporting cast played by an ensemble of indigenous actors, including Gil Birmingham (“Hell or High Water”) as the murdered girl’s grieving father; Graham Greene (an Oscar-nominee for “Dances With Wolves”) as the chief of the Tribal Police, and Boston’s Julia Jones (“Twilight”) as Cory’s ex-wife.
Sheridan loses his tight rein on his intricately plotted story in a third act overpopulated by a crew of sketchy oil riggers (Jon Bernthal, Matthew Del Negro, Hugh Dillon). With all the subtlety of a bomb, the script panders to graphic violence and brutality that doesn’t fit tonally with what preceded it. In a very nuanced and layered performance, Renner’s final scenes — one opposite a desperate James Jordan, another with an emotionally raw Birmingham, and a third in Olsen’s hospital room — are among the film’s strongest. Renner does terrific work, recalling his career-best stoic turn in “The Hurt Locker.”
“Wind River” likely won’t boost tourism to Wyoming, but Sheridan, who once lived on a reservation, is positioning himself as a storyteller for the disenfranchised.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham.
(R for violence, rape, language)