Starring Jeremy Renner. Rated 18A
Perhaps it’s a good thing that Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River comes to us during one of the hottest summers on record. After watching this bleak slice of Wyoming winter, set to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s beyond-haunting score, you need a little warmth. It’s the subject matter that chills the most, from the opening scene of violence on a frost-encrusted Indigenous reservation to a harrowing end title about missing Native American women that hits close to home.
The celebrated screenwriter of modern masterpieces like Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan shows a strong talent for direction, too, displaying the style and complexity he needs to best tell his story—a tale that might read like a rote murder mystery in anyone else’s hands.
After a breathless opening where a woman futilely runs for her life barefoot through the snow, we cut to Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Wildlife Service tracker, aiming his shotgun at a pack of wolves stalking farmers’ sheep.
He’s an expert at hunting down wild beasts through the snow, which prepares him mightily for helping rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, finding the right balance of tough and naive) track the predators who killed the woman.
Unlike Banner, Lambert knows the reservation and the poverty and drug problems that plague it. As portrayed in Renner’s deepest performance to date, he also bears sad secrets beneath his tough hunter exterior.
Sheridan, too, shows an understanding of the Rez. In one moving scene, he shows a bereaved father who paints his face in traditional colours, but doesn’t know what to do from there: “There’s no one left to teach me.” The ever-exasperated (and excellent) Graham Greene, as the reservation sheriff, says to Banner with a shrug that there’s no such thing as “backup” here; “This is the land of ‘You’re on your own.’ ” And it’s not by accident that the oil rigs leasing the land up the road are owned by rich white guys from Texas.
It’s these themes that enrich Wind River, even in the unrelenting tension and violence of its climax. The mystery, when it’s solved, rewards every ounce of dread that’s been built up.
In the end, Sheridan’s most meaningful act may be to frame the woman we see running at the beginning of the film as not a victim, but a warrior—as part of a larger group of fighters who have survived the odds. This surprisingly contemplative murder thriller poses cold, hard questions. What does it mean to be a survivor? Where does the will to survive come from? And how far could you run in the snow barefoot?