An American frontier thriller, coulrophobia on full blast, therapy at Folsom Prison, an intimate Syrian war drama, and a pithy veteran Labour MP.
Wind River is the third work in actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s modern frontier trilogy (after Sicario and Hell And High Water) and Sheridan’s very first movie credited as director. It’s an American thriller that will certainly appeal to fans of Scandinavian noir.
Although set in Wyoming (supposedly in the spring), this is a story that unfolds in a very bleak and icy environment in which the wind chill factor is always well below zero. It’s very well written, albeit a little portentous and self-conscious. Wind River film digs away at the hidden grief of its characters while every so often exploding into extreme violence.
The prelude here shows a girl running across the snow. She’s the victim whose death sets the plot in motion – an 18-year-old Native American woman called Natalie Hanson who was fleeing for her life and who ran six miles across the snow in bare feet when the air was so cold that even to breathe it seared her lungs.
Instead of a Wallander-like detective, the film offers us a wildlife ranger called Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner.) He’s an expert tracker and hunter who wears white to help him blend into the scenery. His job is to shoot wolves and mountain lions that may be threatening the livestock on the Wind River reservation.
Renner plays him as if he is a modern-day equivalent to one of those laconic cowboy heroes in old westerns. He never seems rushed, even at the most dangerous moments, and he speaks in aphorisms. (Wolves don’t kill unlucky deer. They kill the weakest, is a typical one-liner.) The only surprise is that he doesn’t chew and spit out tobacco.
Renner is a charismatic actor and this is an appealing performance – even if it isn’t a remotely credible one. We learn that beneath his laidback exterior, the tracker is eaten up with grief over the death of his daughter, who was roughly the same age as Natalie and died in similar circumstances.
As in Sicario, a female FBI agent lands up in a community in which she is a complete outsider. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) has arrived in the icy Wyoming wilderness straight from Las Vegas. She is not equipped for the conditions and doesn’t appear to know what she is doing. What were they thinking sending you here, a local is heard to complain. We’ve already guessed, though, that Banner is far smarter and more resilient than she seems as she stands shivering in the snow.
Renner and Olsen appear together in Marvel Avengers movies. They have an obvious rapport as the odd couple drawn together by the case. The mystery here doesn’t take enormous ingenuity to solve. There are so few people around anyway that it’s easy to narrow down the suspects.
Throughout the film, Sheridan gives us little insights into the callous way that Native Americans are still treated in the US. There are no FBI statistics on the disappearance of Native American women. Their abductions or deaths don’t provoke much in the way of sympathy or intervention from the authorities.
The young menfolk struggle to find work. Many drift off into drug taking, delinquency and petty crime. This is all in the background. The filmmakers aren’t sermonising. They’re just showing how it is.
One of the great pleasures of Wind River is its slow burning quality. This may be a thriller, but there’s always time for the tracker to share his wisdom about everything from the footprint of lions to how to ingratiate yourself with horses. (Let him smell you, let him breathe you, let him know you – he will love you for life.) Sheridan throws in plenty of very picturesque shots of snowy landscapes.
This means the tempo is on the languid side. Lambert likes to sit and think. He does drive his snow bike at speeds of 80 mph or more but that doesn’t mean he is ever in a hurry. Like Hawkeye in Last Of The Mohicans, he relies on stealth, not speed. The elegiac music from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis adds to the film’s dreamy, slow motion quality, and to the feeling of sadness and loss with which the story is imbued.
There’s an attraction between the tracker and the FBI agent but Sheridan doesn’t overemphasise it at all. There’s something perfunctory, too, about the way he sketches in the details of Lambert’s family life, introducing us only in passing to his wife (from whom he is separated) and his young son. He leavens matters with an occasional flickering of humour. Confronting yet another freezing day, Olsen’s FBI agent sighs in exasperation to a colleague: Didn’t you get the memo that it’s spring. Renner’s tracker also has a nice line in deadpan irony.
James Jordan gives a memorably nasty, self-pitying and creepy performance as the security guard, Pete. When he is on screen, the film develops an edge. For the rest of the time, the tone is more meditative than confrontational. Wind River is still a very absorbing movie to watch – a mysterious murder with a strong lyrical and philosophical streak.