Disappointing tale of murder in the cold mountains
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.