Dis­ap­point­ing tale of mur­der in the cold moun­tains

Sunday Herald Life - - FILM REVIEW - By Demetrios Matheou

IN the mid­dle of the night, in the mid­dle of nowhere, a young woman is run­ning bare­foot in the freez­ing snow. We don’t see from what, or whom, she is flee­ing. But there’s only one way this is go­ing to end.

Wind River is a mur­der mys­tery, in which land­scape and his­tory play im­por­tant roles – the harsh, un­com­pro­mis­ing, sub-zero moun­tains of Wy­oming com­bined with the bit­ter­ness and an­tag­o­nisms of a na­tive Amer­i­can reser­va­tion make for a deadly com­bi­na­tion. It’s de­bat­able which is the more dan­ger­ous – man or na­ture.

The woman’s body is dis­cov­ered by Cory Lam­bert (Jeremy Ren­ner), a game tracker re­spon­si­ble for pro­tect­ing the lo­cal live­stock from the preda­tors. FBI agent Jane Ban­ner (El­iz­a­beth Olsen), drafted in from Las Ve­gas and out of her com­fort zone, im­me­di­ately recog­nises that Lam­bert has the skills she needs in hunt­ing the killer.

Ban­ner’s tac­i­turn new guide in­tro­duces her to the reser­va­tion com­mu­nity, which is iso­lated, down-at-heel, for­got­ten and em­bit­tered. Vi­o­lence sim­mers be­low the sur­face. As the lo­cal po­lice chief in­forms her, “this is not the land of back-up”.

Lam­bert has known his own tragedy, sep­a­rated from his na­tive Amer­i­can wife after their daugh­ter died in equally sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances, some years be­fore. But it’s the tracker who pro­vides the only light in the film; he’s positive and fo­cused in his work, and main­tains a strong re­la­tion­ship with his son, who he en­sures will ap­pre­ci­ate, not re­gret, his roots. And fol­low­ing the char­ac­ter clues and the foot­prints in the snow, he slowly leads Ban­ner to­wards an­swers.

The film is writ­ten and di­rected by Tay­lor Sheri­dan, best known as the scriptwriter of two ex­cep­tional re­cent thrillers – Si­cario and Hell And High Wa­ter. This isn’t as con­sis­tently sat­is­fy­ing as ei­ther of those films, but it has more of in­ter­est than most thrillers, par­tic­u­larly in its open­ing se­quences.

Ren­ner, who’s been lum­bered with (if not emas­cu­lated by) the fee­blest Avenger of the Mar­vel fran­chise, Hawk­eye, prob­a­bly champed at the bit when he read Lam­bert, who he plays as an ar­che­typal Amer­i­can hero, a man of few words and solid ac­tion. And he’s in­cred­i­bly mov­ing when his char­ac­ter guides the dead girl’s fa­ther on how to com­bat his grief.

Olsen has less to work with, but riffs nicely off her co-star, and her no-non­sense, dryly witty agent of­fers the newby’s guide to the in­tim­i­dat­ing land­scape. Sheri­dan en­sures the icy en­vi­ron­ment is not just win­dow dress­ing, but a pal­pa­ble com­po­nent in his story. The de­tail about why run­ning in sub­zero tem­per­a­tures is such a bad idea only has to be ex­plained, not shown, to be grue­somely ef­fec­tive.

Sheri­dan is also ex­cep­tional in deal­ing with ac­tion, with a dy­namic and vis­ceral use of shoot­ing and edit­ing that sug­gests he’ll be mak­ing many more films be­hind the cam­era.

Iron­i­cally, it’s not the di­rec­tion but the script­ing that lets him down. Wind River feels like a work of two halves – the first tightly coiled, char­ac­ter­driven, at­mo­spheric, de­riv­ing its dra­matic beats from the real-life con­text; the sec­ond dis­ap­point­ingly aban­dons all that, for a pat rev­e­la­tion and a hare-brained shoot-out which, how­ever well filmed, seems out of place.

The film is topped and tailed with earnest cap­tions about the plight of na­tive Amer­i­can women, many of whose dis­ap­pear­ances are not even logged or in­ves­ti­gated. But the fact th­ese state­ments sand­wich an of­ten vi­o­lent ac­tion thriller, rather than a more nu­anced piece, seems anath­ema. With Si­cario (the drug trade) and Hell And High Wa­ter (eco­nomic down­turn) Sheri­dan tellingly com­bined so­cio-po­lit­i­cal com­ment with ac­tion; here he fails to make the same per­fect mar­riage of form and con­tent.

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