“Wind River” a harsh end to tril­ogy

★★★5 Rated R. 107 min­utes

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Wenzel

It doesn’t take a film scholar to see that each new en­try in Tay­lor Sheri­dan’s “Mod­ern Amer­i­can Fron­tier” tril­ogy has grown chill­ier and more de­lib­er­ate as it has pushed north.

Sheri­dan is the writer of 2015’s “Si­cario” and 2016’s “Hell or High Wa­ter” — both of which felt like clas­si­cally topical (if en­tirely wor­thy) Oscar bait — but he also steps be­hind the cam­era with this year’s “Wind River.”

Whereas “Si­cario” ex­am­ined the drug war on the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, and “Hell or High Wa­ter” ex­plored eco­nomic des­per­a­tion in West Texas, “Wind River” plants us on a frozen reser­va­tion in Wyoming, where the sex­ual as­sault and death of a young Amer­i­can In­dian woman has grabbed the at­ten­tion of the FBI — but just barely.

In­stead of dis­patch­ing a vet­eran, the feds send baby-faced Jane Ban­ner from the Las Ve­gas field of­fice. As played by Elizabeth Olsen, Ban­ner is cred­i­bly res­o­lute and just as cred­i­bly un­sea­soned. Con­trast­ing her with the Wind River reser­va­tion’s sav­age en­vi­ron­ment and its numb, ne­glected denizens cre­ates many of the film’s bright­est mo­ments.

Her ac­ci­den­tal part­ner in this icy waste­land is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Ren­ner), who first finds the body of the young woman while track­ing coy­ote and other preda­tors. Her death re­sounds painfully and omi­nously for Lambert, given the sim­i­larly mys­te­ri­ous loss of his daugh­ter three years prior. As such, Lambert’s job as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice agent keeps him con­ve­niently low to the ground while Ban­ner fol­lows the shaky, ide­al­is­tic con­tours of her train­ing.

It makes for more of a fa­ther­daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship than odd­cou­ple repartee, but it works for the film, which serves up stoic sup­port­ing char­ac­ters in reg­u­lar dol­lops — lo­cal cops, be­lea­guered fam­ily mem­bers (in­clud­ing an ex­cel­lent Gil Birm­ing­ham), pri­vate se­cu­rity guards and the haunted faces who

watch in­ter­lop­ers roll by in be­tween bliz­zards.

Like every­thing else in “Wind River,” Lambert and Ban­ner’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­folds on the land’s terms, but it’s no tri­umph of na­ture. The set­ting is all crisp brood­ing and op­pres­sive still­ness, even when pep­pered with the oc­ca­sional and well-chore­ographed bursts of ac­tion.

Sheri­dan has pro­fessed ad­mi­ra­tion for Clint East­wood’s tow­er­ing an­tiWestern “Un­for­given” and dark-night-of-the-soul dramas from Michael Mann. Both are ref­er­ence points for his adept mix of mas­cu­line pos­tur­ing and wounded soul-search­ing; he makes bleak­ness po­etic and beauty tragic, and the per­for­mances by Ren­ner (a ca­reer-best) and Olsen jus­tify his cast­ing.

There’s con­ven­tional mys­tery-thriller ap­peal in the gory de­tails that feed a num­ber of po­lice-pro­ce­dural beats, as well as tightlipped por­traits of hard­scrab­ble In­di­ans and re­signed cops. Less fa­mil­iar, and far more un­set­tling, is the clear-eyed way in which Sheri­dan con­fronts bru­tal­ity, whether from an un­for­giv­ing en­vi­ron­ment, the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s marginal­iza­tion of na­tive peo­ple or the cal­lously vi­o­lent pri­vate se­cu­rity force of an oil com­pany.

A loose thread in the di­a­logue fol­lows char­ac­ters over­look­ing things that are right in front of them. To Lambert, it’s be­cause they are of­ten too painful to con­front. “You’re look­ing for clues but you’re miss­ing all the signs,” he croaks.

The lean script of­fers plenty of other iconic lines. “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane,” an able Gra­ham Greene, as the tribal sher­iff, tells Olsen’s char­ac­ter. “This is the land of you’reon-your-own.” Else­where, and to quoth Lambert: “Luck lives in the city ... luck don’t live out here.”

“Wind River” is so dry that it can be boiled down to a few hard truths, and as with any harsh en­vi­ron­ment, the things that sur­vive here are im­pos­si­bly tough and weath­ered (and even many of them don’t make it).

It’s Sheri­dan’s warn­ing that Amer­ica is an in­creas­ingly bleak place for many, and that if we follow this trend — and this tril­ogy — to its con­clu­sion we end not in tur­moil but bit­ter si­lence. The com­fort lies in know­ing we can look for­ward to more of Sheri­dan’s con­fi­dent sto­ry­telling on more sub­jects that des­per­ately de­serve our at­ten­tion.

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