Rated R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language
Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones and more
Grade: Three stars
The important stories can often be painfully tough to watch.
"Wind River," the latest from "Hell or High Water" screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, is a tense, achingly painful look at the plight of missing Native American girls and a reservation that's barely holding on. It's a modern western, much like Sheridan's earlier work, with a stoic marksman of a hero, a "city person" in over their head, and a sense of the outdoors so profound that nature is a character all on its own. Here, though, we occasionally see past the characters' stoic exteriors to see the emotions underneath, from a victims' hope to an agents' sense of overwhelmedness to the crushing, soul-deep grief of a parent who's lost a child. Each time, the emotion makes the story both richer and more heartbreaking.
The movie starts with a game tracker with Fish and Wildlife who finds a dead Native American girl in the woods. She was the best friend of his daughter, who was killed a few years ago, and so when one lone FBI agent comes to try and solve the case he agrees to help out. The odds are stacked against them, however, and they realize it might be impossible to bring the killer to justice.
Sheridan's writing is mostly as excellent as always, bringing the Western feel effortlessly into modern times and exploring the impact and implications of the years in between. The violence is always either painful or cathartic, never melodramatic, and some of the lines of dialogue will stay with you for a long time.
There is unfortunately, one glaring structural flaw - a searing flashback that comes at exactly the wrong time, draining the movie of much of the tension it had done such a good job of building up to that point. The flashback could have easily been kept in the movie, but needed to be moved about 10 minutes further ahead to the scene where the explanations were already happening. I understand that Sheridan put it where he did because he was trying to be clever - he messes with the audience's perception of the timeline a little bit - but I also know that one of the biggest lessons to be learned in writing is that sometimes you have to sacrifice your urge to be clever if it doesn't benefit the story you're telling.
Though there’s something problematic about making a white guy the spokesperson for Native American pain, Jeremy Renner is excellent as the tough, laconic tracker who clings to the mountains because he has hardly anything else left. Gil Birmingham and Graham Greene are both excellent in their supporting roles.
Elizabeth Olsen isn’t given nearly as much to work with as Renner, but she actually works wonderfully well as the audience’s surrogate. We’re as overwhelmed as she is in this environment, surrounded by this weight of tragedy, and Olsen does a good job of showing her character struggling to stay afloat in a world she doesn’t understand.
Though the movie is set in Wyoming, the harsh beauty you see onscreen was all filmed in Utah’s mountains. In “Wind River,” however, it feels like an entirely different world.