Wind River—Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olson, Julia Jones, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Tantoo Cardinal, Apesanakhwat, Martin Sensmeier (2017; Dir.: Taylor Sheridan)
“This isn’t the land of waiting for backup. This is the land of ‘You’re on your own.'”
This is a modern western set on western Wyoming’s Wind River Shoshone-Arapaho reservation, a mountainous area the size of Rhode Island. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker and hunter with the Fish and Wildlife Service. His normal duties consist of eliminating predators who prey on livestock in the vicinity, but as he tracks a renegade mountain lion in the wintry landscape of the reservation he finds the body of a young woman. She has bare feet and has died from running six miles in the extreme cold while her lungs crystallized and hemorrhaged. She has also been subjected to multiple rapes, so the death is treated as a murder.
Since Natalie, the young woman, is an Arapaho and her death occurs on the reservation, it is initially investigated by Ben (Graham Greene), the tribal police chief with few resources. But since it may also involve non-Indian parties, the FBI is notified, and they send in a young, inexperienced female agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson). It turns out the victim Natalie was a friend of Lambert’s daughter Emily, who had died in mysterious fashion a couple of years earlier. That death broke up Lambert’s marriage to Wilma (also an Arapaho, played by Julia Jones), and, since Agent Banner needs a lot of instruction about local tribal matters and customs and even dealing with the extreme cold, Lambert becomes involved in the investigation.
With conflicting law-enforcement jurisdictions, the trail leads to Natalie’s brother (Martin Sensmeier), living with drugged-out types in a trailer and to Natalie’s white boy friend, whose body is also found a couple of days later on the mountain. As Lambert’s hunting skills are brought into greater play and Agent Banner learns quickly, matters come to a head, with a satisfying conclusion. Banner, who is shot, turns out to be tougher than she looked. And Lambert administers some native-style justice.
The story is fairly straightforward, but it has a certain weight because of our investment in the characters, the margins of the conflicting cultures, the competing laws and jurisdictions and the magnificent wintry landscape. Renner and Olson, as the principal characters, are both persuasive, especially Renner with the perennial sadness lurking in his eyes. There is excellent use of a very good cast of experienced Indian actors as well.
Hunter Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and fledgling FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson) get on with the hunt.
This is the first feature film directed by writer Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water. While the direction is not flashy, there are some moments, as when a helicopter shot takes us from behind a mountain peak over the crest to see a caravan of law-enforcement vehicles heading down a remote road, that show considerable skill. But it is the story and especially the characters and setting that make us care. This should be remembered at award time, but probably won’t be.
Shot near Park City, Utah, at 107 minutes. Rated R for the violence of events investigated and for a couple of violent confrontations. This compact film doesn’t necessarily tie up all the loose ends, but it does well.
Lambert (Jeremy Renner) waits with Martin Hansen (Gil Birmingham), father of the victim.
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle had this response to the film: “Wind River” is an impressive effort and an impressive result that opens up a world that most of us have never thought about and renders it with sorrow and vividness… Yes, the story here performs its function. It’s interesting and at times even exciting and suspenseful, but its emotional effect has much to do with the characters and our investment in them. Taylor Sheridan, who wrote screenplays for “Sicario” and “Hell and High Water,” wrote and directed this with an unmistakable commitment to the place and the people he was depicting. He takes us somewhere. We learn the customs, and the world, and the weary philosophy that everyone seems to share, and come away almost feeling as if we’ve been there, or that these people and places have somehow become part of our interior landscape.”
For another good modern western featuring a hunter-tracker in a sparsely-populated west, see Last of the Dogmen. For a similar sensibility in a different modern western setting (west Texas), see Hell or High Water (2016), also written by Sheridan and also very good.