Stories can be simple at heart but layered in presentation. Wind River is a great example of that, presenting a fairly standard story wrapped in layers of complexity in a mystery that is less about the mystery itself than the nuances of its characters, and the challenges of its setting. Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has already proved to be an exceptionally talented writer having penned the likes of Sicario and Hell or High Water, and he once more writes an intelligent script here. This, together with excellent direction that makes him seem vastly experienced despite the fact that this is his debut means that Wind River is one of the films of the year, without a doubt.
Set in freezing central Wyoming in the Wind River Indian Reservation, the story is on the surface a simple murder mystery, except it’s also nothing but. The setting is almost another character, dominating every scene that’s out in the open, and permeating in to the few scenes that are set indoors as well. That chill of the landscape is almost omnipotent and weighs heavily on everyone. “Just the snow. And the silence. That’s all” remarks a character in describing the area, and they are very right. It feeds in to the characters as well. Jeremy Renner, in arguably a career best performance, plays US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert, a gruff, reserved Cowboy type who excels at his job and finds the body of a young woman while tracking mountain lions. Despite that gruff exterior, he is also dealing with some demons that serve to enhance later aspects of the story, something that Renner could easily overplay but he doesn’t at all, conveying emotion through facial twitches in an understated and very effective way. He is partnered by Elizabeth Olsen, who is also brilliant as FBI agent Jane Banner, flown in from Las Vegas by the Bureau to investigate the possible homicide. She is well out of her comfort zone in this frigid, faraway part of America, and is reliant on her resolve and determination to overcome the obstacles the landscape provides.
As well as focusing on its main characters and their interactions and growing relationship, the film does a great job of highlighting the situation that the Native Americans face. They have only a hugely understaffed police force with which to investigate crimes like this, and are reliant on the FBI to help, even if jurisdiction laws get hazy on reservations. The Native American community displays a strong sense of togetherness, but they are also visibly affected by the harshness and futility of their surroundings. Gil Birmingham does a particularly excellent job of conveying this sense of hopelessness as the father of the deceased woman that Banner is investigating, delivering a performance broiling with anger, frustration and aching sadness that truly tugs at the heartstrings.
As a result of all these different aspects, this simple murder mystery becomes a deeply emotional, powerful experience, while also maintaining a sense of tension that bubbles under the surface throughout. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ excellent score definitely adds to that sense of atmosphere, their bleak and intricate score giving the landscape the respect it deserves and maintaining the tension whenever possible. All the elements come together to create a thoroughly satisfying whole, an intelligent crime drama that shows conviction and grips until the very end.
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