Stark beauty in bru­tal ‘Wind’

Jeremy Ren­ner ex­cels in a crime thriller by Tay­lor Sheri­dan that rings with Western au­then­tic­ity.


“Wind River,” writ­ten and di­rected by Tay­lor Sheri­dan and star­ring Jeremy Ren­ner and El­iz­a­beth Olsen, is some­thing spe­cial.

At times po­etic, at others bleak and bru­tal — and how could it be oth­er­wise, with rape and mur­der at the heart of its plot — this tense, con­vinc­ing in­de­pen­dent film is the most ac­com­plished vi­o­lent thriller in quite some time.

Set on the Na­tive Amer­i­can reser­va­tion in Wy­oming that gives the film its name, the com­plete plau­si­bil­ity of “Wind River” is at­tached to an un­mis­tak­able tang of au­then­tic­ity. Filled with gritty di­a­logue from

strong, well-de­fined char­ac­ters who say only what needs to be said and not an­other word, this film is every­thing it should be and more.

Sheri­dan, pre­vi­ously known as a vet­eran ac­tor and the Os­car-nom­i­nated screen­writer of “Hell or High Wa­ter” and “Si­cario,” won a top di­rect­ing award at Cannes for work that an­nounces the ar­rival of a sig­nif­i­cant film­maker.

His “Wind River” is not only a deft com­bi­na­tion of mod­ern and tra­di­tional ap­proaches to the genre, it also demon­strates that when screen­writ­ers who know what they’re do­ing shoot their own work, they con­vey a deeper, fuller un­der­stand­ing of what they’ve writ­ten than we’d oth­er­wise get.

Crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions set on reser­va­tions in­evitably bring to mind Tony Hiller­man’s Joe Leaphorn/ Jim Chee nov­els, but, aided by an un­nerv­ing Nick Cave and Warren El­lis score, the tone here is darker, the rez a more dirt poor, hard-scrabble and dan­ger­ous place. “Luck don’t live out here,” some­one says. “Luck lives in the city.”

Sheri­dan has no Na­tive Amer­i­can her­itage, but he ap­par­ently spent con­sid­er­able time on reser­va­tions be­fore his act­ing ca­reer be­gan and, aided by ace sup­port­ing ac­tors like Ju­lia Jones, Gra­ham Greene, Gil Birm­ing­ham and Tan­too Car­di­nal, he has so cap­tured the at-times de­spair­ing mind-set there that the Tu­nica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana pro­vided a key chunk of the film’s fi­nanc­ing.

Also very real (though shot in snowy Utah, not Wy­oming) is the im­pos­ing Western land­scape richly pho­tographed by “Beasts of the South­ern Wild” cine­matog­ra­pher Ben Richard­son in ar­eas so re­mote that equip­ment and crew needed snow­mo­biles and snow­cats to get to the lo­ca­tions.

Be­cause codes of mas­cu­line be­hav­ior, both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive, are a ma­jor theme in “Wind River,” it’s crit­i­cal to the film’s suc­cess that it takes the time to present a de­tailed portrait of pro­tag­o­nist Cory Lam­bert, played by Ren­ner. Be­fore we get to him, how­ever, “Wind River” pro­vides a chill­ing pro­logue of a ter­ri­fied young woman, shown run­ning pellmell through deep snow in the mid­dle of the night, flee­ing an in­vis­i­ble threat.

Seen next is a preda­tor of a dif­fer­ent sort, a hun­gry wolf men­ac­ing a herd of goats. Get­ting in the way of that deadly be­hav­ior, how­ever, is Lam­bert. Dressed in deep win­ter cam­ou­flage, he’s a hunter/tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, the law in th­ese parts as far as ma­raud­ing an­i­mals are con­cerned.

Lam­bert is also the di­vorced hus­band of Wilma, a Na­tive Amer­i­can woman (Jones is ex­cel­lent) bur­dened by a kind of free-float­ing sad­ness and de­s­pair.

Wilma wor­ries as Lam­bert takes their young son from her house in town to visit her par­ents on the reser­va­tion, where the tracker is re­spected for his skill at a nec­es­sary job, but no one, least of all him, for­gets that he is not Na­tive.

We’ve al­ready seen the clas­si­cally ma­cho side of Lam­bert, an al­pha male who even makes his own bul­lets, but “Wind River” now en­sures that we see his ten­der heart as well, show­ing the time he takes to ed­u­cate his son and, later, watch­ing him share a heart­break­ing hug with a male friend.

Ren­ner, a two-time Os­car nom­i­nee, has been ex­cel­lent in the past, but he re­ally ex­cels in a role that de­mands he be both la­conic and emo­tional in an un­fussy way. Though the part was not writ­ten for him, he owns it from the in­side as if it were.

Out hunt­ing a moun­tain lion in the back­coun­try, Lam­bert comes across the frozen body of that young woman from the pro­logue. It is Natalie (Kelsey As­bille, haunt­ing in a later flash­back), some­one whose reser­va­tion fam­ily he knows.

Be­cause of the sever­ity of the crime on gov­ern­ment land, FBI agent Jane Ban­ner (a strong Olsen) draws the short straw and is flown in to in­ves­ti­gate. Based in Las Ve­gas, Ban­ner doesn’t even have win­ter clothes, and the scene where Lam­bert’s dis­pleased for­mer mother-in­law pro­vides them is a treat (and a won­der­ful mo­ment for the vet­eran Car­di­nal).

Like Ren­ner, Olsen walks an in­ter­est­ing line with her char­ac­ter (the ac­tors worked to­gether in “Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War”). She’s surely a fish out of wa­ter, as the tribal po­lice chief finely played by Greene ac­knowl­edges when he asks, “What are they think­ing, send­ing you here?” But she must also be ca­pa­ble when the chips are down, able to han­dle her­self and hold her own.

It’s in­evitable that Ban­ner asks Lam­bert to co­op­er­ate with her, though nei­ther she nor the au­di­ence knows as­pects of his past that will fac­tor into his be­hav­ior.

The film’s dis­turb­ing vi­o­lence stuns and surprises us when it comes, which is as it should be, but a clos­ing ti­tle card re­minds us that a real-world cri­sis un­der­lies it. The fo­cus here is al­ways on char­ac­ter and sto­ry­telling and the act­ing that brings it all alive. With thrillers this good be­com­ing a lost art, “Wind River” is def­i­nitely one to sa­vor.

Weinstein Co.

JEREMY REN­NER, left, here with Gil Birm­ing­ham, por­trays a vet­eran tracker who helps in­ves­ti­gate a mur­der on a reser­va­tion.

Fred Hayes Weinstein Co.

HUGH DIL­LON, left, El­iz­a­beth Olsen and Gra­ham Greene are on the hunt for a killer in “Wind River.”

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