‘Wind River’ hurts throughout its spellbinding murder/mystery
Written and directed by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Althea Sam, Kelsey Asbille, and Julia Jones
“Wind River” – The cold hurts.
In the middle of winter - whether one shovels heavy powder off a lengthy driveway, lifts a car’s hood to jumpstart a dead battery or trudges through an enormous shopping mall parking lot on a freezing day while searching for a lost vehicle – the cold hurts.
These, however, are extremely minor inconveniences compared to the fate that the cold inflicted on Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a young woman who froze to death in the snow after running, stumbling and crawling in the bitter, wintertime temperatures of Wyoming. A nearby game tracker, Cory (Jeremy Renner), finds her face down – without her shoes - but the mystery deepens because Natalie was miles from anywhere.
“Most murders are never solved. Most criminals are never found.”
This is the tagline in writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s new film, and the “Hell or High Water” (2016) and “Sicario” (2015) screenwriter delivers a picture lurking in somber tones that match its bleak outlook on homicides. Wind River – a Native American reservation – is the setting, and Sheridan reincarnates the desolate locales of his aforementioned screenplays, except here, snow and ice replace the dirt and clay of West Texas and Mexico, respectively. Wind River might as well be in “The Middle of Nowhere, Alaska”, with residents driving snowmobiles as frequently as four-wheel drive pickups when traveling miles and miles to and from isolated homes which occasionally dot the landscape.
On the reservation, Sheridan’s camera briefly captures an upside-down American flag that reflects malaise or discontent, but Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Annie (Althea Sam) feel immeasurably worse due their agonizing grief over the loss of their daughter found frozen to death.
FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) – from Las Vegas - arrives on the scene, and she feels somewhat emotionally frozen. This relatively young investigator does not possess any knowledge of this snowy wilderness and sparse population.
A local officer, Ben (Graham Greene), reinforces her trepidation when he exclaims, “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own.”
Luckily, Cory – who has spent years tracking animals all over these mountains – agrees to team with Jane, and the actors, who fight together as Hawkeye and The Scarlet Witch in the “Avengers” films, pair up in this very different picture.
Along the way, Sheridan stingily reveals very few clues to the audience, as we feel as out of our element as Jane. On the other hand, the pair’s measured detective work – through interviewing locals and decoding tracks imprinted in snowflakes – does allow plenty of screen time to explore their characters’ DNA, especially Cory’s motivation for helping Jane.
In turn, we also realize that even though Jane is inexperienced via the rugged peaks of secluded Wyoming, she is not a helpless doe loitering in view of some unknown predator’s crosshairs. Speaking of which, “Wind River” immerses itself with predator/prey symbolism on several occasions, and this dynamic resonates as a dominant theme through horror, tears and the pursuit of backyard justice.
Every on-screen actor does justice to their characters by delivering a collective emotional sobriety, with hints of joy cloaked by hardened shells. These shells amassed because of the landscape’s difficult, unsupported ambiance and through unfair and/or viciously cruel events in which no presiding, governing entity doles out a fair and equitable split of positive and negative life outcomes. Thankfully, Greene – whose welcome presence has lit up big screens for decades – brings occasional levity to an otherwise dark picture in which the only other light exists in the form of white snow. Then again, where snow exists, one knows that the cold is its faithful companion, and the latter hurts.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively