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‘Wind River’ Movie Review: I Smell an Oscar

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“Wind River” Movie Review: I Smell an Oscar

Inside the harsh, unforgiving climate of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, a Fish and Wildlife Tracker (Jeremy Renner) finds the body of a teenager frozen to death. When evidence of foul play surfaces, he teams up with a Las Vegas FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to track down the suspect.
With his third script, writer Taylor Sheridan steps into the director’s chair for a film that feels personal and close to him. It could very well not be, but one wouldn’t know that from how thorough and emotionally enveloping “Wind River” is. That’s movie magic. The writer of the solid “Hell or High Water” and the terrific “Sicario” again shows an ear for meticulous, procedural crime films in which the character’s journey takes the lead over the mystery.
As mysteries go, “Wind River” is about as straight-forward as it comes. So if you like your thrillers where the serial killer plots elaborate cat-and-mouse games with the cops, rips off his mask at the end, and turns out to be the victim’s own mother, or is revealed to be the schizophrenic alter-ego of the cop investigating the case… this is not that movie.
But it is a richly satisfying adult drama about life in a particular part of the world. Using time-honored tropes spun to its advantage, Sheridan builds the movie on the mismatched impromptu partnership of the straight-laced, young FBI agent Jane Banner—the audience surrogate into the true brutality of living on this land—and Renner’s character Corey Lambert, who gets wrapped up in the mystery because he knows the family of the victim and has a particular set of skills involving tracking.
While the mystery isn’t a McGuffin, and in fact is resolved in as exciting a manner as any crazy studio twist, the real villain in “Wind River” is the land itself. As the film goes on, we meet person after person that has had someone taken from them by the harsh living conditions. We meet people whose loved ones died or simply disappeared. We learn how the need for survival drives people to desperation, and what it’s like to freeze to death, when your lungs freeze and explode inside of you.
As a director, Sheridan sinks us into that world, like being dipped in freezing cold molasses, immersing us in beautiful barren landscapes and a haunting musical score. From the minute Banner enters the reservation, she finds herself in a different world where typical procedure is useless at every turn because they’re too far from help, have too small a local police force, or the weather simply won’t allow it.
None of the supporting characters that make up this world are stock—the reservation sheriff who trades dry lines with a neighbor and who finds lions on his property; the victim’s brother and his den of drug addicts; Lambert’s ex-wife, a Native American sharing a tragic past; they are all unique.
The script is also excellent. Paying attention to the natural way people joke with each other, representing the trapped feeling of life on a Native American Reservation, and displaying a seemingly intimate and insightful knowledge of loss; all that, without a hint of melodrama.
Renner and Olsen chew up and knock out the challenge this film mounts on them—Renner particularly conveying the heavy heart of a grieving father trying to offer advice to another grieving father, and Olsen, capable, but trying to keep her head above water. In one of the movie’s best scenes, she is left hovering alone in a hall between a mother cutting herself and a father wailing in anguish on the front porch.
“Wind River” didn’t immediately blow me away, despite its high score. It’s neither showy nor theatrical nor shocking. It doesn’t break the mold, and nobody is going to confuse Sheridan for the gritty iconoclasm of David Fincher. It just quietly strikes each little note to near perfection, filling the frame with rich details. The climax sneaks up on us, and before you know it, Sheridan has pulled together the character drama, the atmosphere, and the mystery without forgetting the visceral thrills of modern Western gunplay.
It’s icy, moody, and yes, procedural as well. It lingers in the brain and sloshes around for days afterward. It’s a strong directorial debut that defines Sheridan’s meticulous style and voice immediately. I’d look forward to years of Sheridan spinning the modern Western in fresh new directions.