Wind River is a bleak murder mystery set against a brutal backdrop

By Leigh Monson

   Taylor Sheridan isn't exactly a screenwriter whom one goes to for moments of uplift or inspiration. The mind behind Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan specializes in stories of bleak survival against the most vicious of predators: other people. Taking a rare turn at direction, Sheridan's Wind River is no different, this time examining the lives of Native Americans on the Wind River Indian Reservation. However, one shouldn't expect this to compare to his previous screenplays, for while Sheridan's direction is serviceable, he didn't put his best foot forward with this narrative.
   Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent who works the reservation hunting predators, one day discovering the frozen corpse of a young woman. Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent out to investigate and determines that the case qualifies as a homicide. With the help of the local chief of police (Graham Greene), Lambert and Banner investigate the death of the woman, coming face to face with the extreme poverty of the reservation's residents and understanding the desperation that drives them.
   There's a lot to like about Wind River, not the least of which is Renner's portrayal of a broken man who had only just lost his own teenage daughter a couple years prior. Renner gives a performance that gradually peels back layers of a tortured man who steadfastly refuses to show it, even as it affects his judgment and motivation in solving this case. The level of empathy we feel for him segues rather neatly into the film's overall message about violence against women on Native lands, and if you think you have the pieces of that puzzle preemptively figured out, it's rather likely you don't.
   Unfortunately, this is in part because the film opts to hold its hand close to its chest in terms of potential suspects until it nears its climax, which makes the resolution of the central mystery somewhat lacking in terms of audience engagement. The villain of the piece is suitably nasty, but we only ever come to know them for their crime and not their personality. Maybe that's part of the point, but it seems lacking, particularly as the screenplay occasionally lurches to even reach the culprit's introduction. For as good as Renner's performance is, he is often held down by rote and predictable dialogue that must surely have sounded more clever on the page than it does in delivery. And it must be said that it's perhaps more than a little uncomfortable that a film primarily about a Native American issue opts to frame that issue through the struggle of a couple of white investigators. While this may have been a necessity for the film to have ever been made, as known actors will sell a film better than cultural authenticity, it is still a disservice to Native American communities to take a backseat in seeing their struggles shared on-screen.
   Overall, though, Wind River is a tense, entertaining film that might not stick with you in quite the same way as Taylor Sheridan's other screenplays, but it contains a culturally important message that many a casual filmgoer would be remiss in missing. Sheridan shines as a director during moments of violent intensity, but he does so against a bleak white backdrop that complements both the moments of silence and bloodshed.

3.5/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.