Even if you’ve never been to Wind River, you’ll probably recognize it when you see it: a land that exists not just in the real world but also as a sort of mythical idea of the American West — a vast, untamable territory where men are men, wolves roam free, and anyone asking for almond milk in their coffee will be swiftly returned to the soft place they came from.
These hardscrabble Wyoming plains are home turf to a guy like Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), with his battered Stetson and 50-yard squint — though technically his job as a game tracker is to make sure all those wolves (and mountain lions and bears) don’t run too free. His duties protecting the local livestock are what lead him to a more unnatural predator: the unseen man or beast a panicked teenage girl (Kelsey Asbille) from the nearby reservation is shown fleeing in the movie’s unnerving opening scene. Whatever it is, it’s enough to make her stagger on in bitter subzero temperatures, barefoot and terrified, until the cold finally overtakes her.
Weather may be her official cause of death, but there are enough signs of foul play to call in the FBI, which arrives in the rookie form of Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). A Florida native stationed in Las Vegas, she’s literally a fish out of Fort Lauderdale, drastically ill-equipped for the permafrost chill. (While she is lent a snowsuit on arrival, warm does not describe her welcome.) Jane is smart enough, at least, to know she’ll need help, and Cory emerges as the kindest, most capable option. He’s familiar with the land and friends with the dead girl’s father (Gil Birmingham, one of several standout indigenous actors in the cast). And he’s got his own reasons for signing on; he too once lost a daughter. Now all he has is a bare bachelor’s cabin, occasional custody of his son, and a few terse exchanges with the Native ex-wife (Julia Jones) whose grief is clearly still as raw as his own.
Anyone searching for a common thread in writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s work won’t have to look far: He’s already earned wide acclaim for penning 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, and for his role as a police chief on Sons of Anarchy — all projects grounded in a kind of true, taciturn grit. Wind River carries the unavoidable whiff of all the flinty-eyed Westerns that came before, from John Ford to the Coen brothers, even if the script’s late, vicious swerve into graphic violence feels more like Tarantino. Cory is undeniably an archetype, part Marlboro man, part Cormac McCarthy cowboy mystic. Still, Renner gives his pain layers and imbues the story — based on real events — with the emotional heft it deserves. (Sheridan is less sure-handed with female characters; like Emily Blunt in Sicario, Olsen’s agent serves the law with a naïveté that veers near fatal.) For all its well-worn outlines, the narrative exerts its own fierce, clenched-jaw grip: a cautionary campfire tale that reminds us it’s not merely the end that matters, it’s the style and skill of the telling. B+