“Wind River” a harsh end to trilogy
★★★5 Rated R. 107 minutes
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.