Director: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones, Teo Briones, Martin Sensmeier, Tyler Laracca, Shayne Joel Cullen, Kelsey Asbille, Jon Bernthal, James Jordan, Apesanahkwat, Tantoo Cardinal
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 8/4/17 (limited); 8/11/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 10, 2017
"This thing is solving itself," jokes one of the people investigating an apparent murder within the land of snowy plains and mountains known as Wyoming in springtime. The mystery of Wind River is fairly simple, because there aren't too many people to question and even fewer people who could be considered suspects in this place. That's the kind of mystery that seems right up the alley of writer/director Taylor Sheridan, whose recent work as a screenwriter typically has ignored the obvious machinations of familiar plots. Once begun, those plots quickly turn into opportunities for Sheridan to examine the ways people of a certain profession and/or geographic location behave and talk about their work, their region, and their way of life.
That trend continues here, with the discovery of an 18-year-old woman's body—bloodied and frozen in the snow, just along a tree line at the base of a mountain—serving as the starting point for a story that's only tangentially about murder. Sheridan is more concerned with the people caught up in the investigation—the people trying to solve the crime, the people affected by it, and the people who may or may not be responsible for it. Of central importance is the first group, a collection of various law enforcement agents, whose talk is brisk and to the point, because they know they don't have time for too many words. They have to choose the right ones to ensure that their point is clear as quickly as possible.
Of the various officials here, the central figure is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who works for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He's a hunter who specializes in killing predators that disrupt the day-to-day work of farmers and ranchers. He and his wife (played by Julia Jones) divorced after the sudden and unexplained death of their daughter three years ago.
While hunting for a mountain lion and its two cubs, which have been killing livestock in the area of the Wind River Indian Reservation ("Mama's just got her entire family killed," he determines), Cory finds the body of his daughter's best friend Natalie (Kelsey Asbille). She died from a pulmonary hemorrhage, while running in freezing temperatures, but there are signs of physical assault and rape, making this a likely homicide. Because of the evidence and the legal designation of the crime scene, an FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent in to help with the investigation.
The actual process of solving the crime is little more than piecing together Natalie's connections—from a brother who's caught up with a bad group of friends to a previously unknown boyfriend to one final location. This isn't a problem, because it's not the point. Sheridan uses the crime as a way of examining the ways in which people grieve (or attempt not to), of exploring the isolated community of the reservation, and of presenting a sense of the no-nonsense attitude that this harsh landscape creates in people—a place where, as Cory puts it, luck doesn't exist, because the only options are survival or death.
There are a lot of components here, but Sheridan juggles them well enough for a time. There's a frank conversation between Cory and Natalie's father Martin (Gil Birmingham) about the dangers of trying to avoid the pain of grief, because, in a way, it becomes the only part of a loved one that remains after his or her death. Life on the reservation is restricted to the necessities of the plot, which means we're only introduced to a grieving family, a gang of drug addicts, and the chief of the tribal police (played by Graham Greene). There are hints of the economic devastation of this area, although the movie's view of it is fairly indifferent. The setting and the people within it are pushed into the background once the plot does take focus (The movie's coda quickly tries to assert that it's a message movie about the apathy of federal and local agencies in the realm of crime on the reservations, but it's an unconvincing argument).
The central issue is how Sheridan ultimately does abandon all of the character and setting development once the mystery must be resolved. Characters who seemed essential, such as Cory's wife and son, disappear without any to-do. Jane never feels at place here, since she's mainly an excuse for other characters to indirectly explain to the audience what the characters already know. She's alternately useless or resourceful—with the latter quality only coming into play when there's violence.
Everything that sets this story apart from a familiar murder mystery is unceremoniously tossed aside once the mystery comes together (In an intriguing bit of storytelling, Sheridan never has his characters directly figure out what happened but, in a cleverly timed flashback, does show it to us). At that point, it's all about resolution and a sense of finality, even though everything up until that point suggests that no such things exist for these characters. The resolution takes the form of a shootout, which, while staged as an intense bit of close-quarters confusion, might be the laziest option available for this story. Wind River convinces us that most of these characters deserve more than something so routine. Taking the story there feels like a cheat.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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