In ‘Wind River’ grief blankets a Wyoming reservation
For Taylor Sheridan, the West is still alive with frontier tragedies and genre thrills, even if hopelessness has moved in and blanketed the land.
“Wind River’’ makes it a kind of trilogy for Sheridan, the writer behind the West Texas neo-Western “Hell or High Water’’ and the Mexican border drug crime drama “Sicario.’’ In “Wind River,’’ he shifts to a Wyoming Native American reservation and behind the camera, but the atmosphere is still rich and familiar: big open spaces with misery all around.
Whereas the Oscar-nominated “Hell or High Water’’ had a bright, comic punch, “Wind River’’ is more in the heavily sombre register of “Sicario.’’ When one father who has lost a daughter consoles another, he advises him to confront the heartache head-on: “Take the pain.’’ It’s something of a mission statement for Sheridan, whose neo-Westerns are filled with deeply burdened men making painful sacrifices.
Sheridan’s latest (his second time directing following the little-seen 2011 horror film “Vile’’) is set around the Wind River Reservation in a wintery Wyoming where, as one character says, “snow and silence are the only things that haven’t been taken.’’ The reservation, shrouded in violence, drugs and poverty, is an ominous place where American flags wave upside down.
It’s there that Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers a freshly frozen body five miles into the mountains. He is a fish and wildlife agent who spends most of his time defending livestock by shooting predators with a rifle. Mountain lions nabbing cattle is what brought him, by snowmobile, to the remote crime site.
The body, an 18-year-old Native American girl named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) is barefoot, despite the snow and the cold, and she’s been raped. Her lungs, Lambert guesses, eventually froze and burst as she fled from miles away.
The investigation, though, is for the FBI. The agency is so thin in rural Wyoming that it dispatches an agent from Las Vegas: Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) who lacks even a good enough winter coat. But Banner quickly shows her strengths and intelligently conscripts Lambert, an experienced tracker, to aid her. “This isn’t the land of backup,’’ she’s told. “This is the land of you’re on your own.’’
The dead girl is revealed to be the daughter of a close friend of Lambert’s (Gil Birmingham). Birmingham, whose too-brief performance is one of noble weariness, is one of many Native Americans who populate the cast and lend “Wind River’’ both excellent acting and ethnic authenticity — even if its leads, and thus the story’s point-ofview, are white. When the police visit the family’s home, they find a broken household. An opened door reveals the guilt-ridden mother bloodily slashing at her wrists. The door, bizarrely, is simply closed.
In this Jan. 21, 2017 file photo, actor Jeremy Renner, from left, Director Taylor Sheridan, actress Elizabeth Olsen and actress Kelsey Asbille Chow pose for a portrait to promote the film, “Wind River”, during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.