For Taylor Sheridan, the West is still alive with frontier tragedies and genre thrills, even if hopelessness has moved in and blanketed the land.
“Wind River” makes it a kind of trilogy for Sheridan, the writer behind the West Texas neo-Western “Hell or High Water” and the Mexican border drug crime drama “Sicario.” In “Wind River,” he shifts to a Wyoming Native American reservation and behind the camera, but the atmosphere is still rich and familiar: big open spaces with misery all around.
Whereas the Oscar-nominated “Hell or High Water” had a bright, comic punch, “Wind River” is more in the heavily somber register of “Sicario.” When one father who has lost a daughter consoles another, he advises him to confront the heartache head-on: “Take the pain.” It’s something of a mission statement for Sheridan.
Sheridan’s latest is set around the Wind River Reservation in a wintery Wyoming where, as one character says, “snow and silence are the only things that haven’t been taken.” The reservation, shrouded in violence, drugs and poverty, is an ominous place where American flags wave upside down.
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It’s there that Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers a freshly frozen body 5 miles into the mountains. He is a Fish & Wildlife agent who spends most of his time defending livestock by shooting predators with a rifle. The body, an 18-year-old Native American girl named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) is barefoot, despite the snow and the cold, and she’s been raped.
The investigation, though, is for the FBI. The agency is so thin in rural Wyoming that it dispatches an agent from Las Vegas: Jane Banner (the always good Elizabeth Olsen), who lacks even a good enough winter coat. But Banner quickly shows her strengths and intelligently conscripts Lambert, an experienced tracker, to aid her.
The dead girl is revealed to be the daughter of a close friend of Lambert’s (Gil Birmingham).
Though Sheridan’s control of the tale is, up until now, fairly total — particularly for an inexperienced filmmaker — the sense that he is overplaying his hand (and wallowing a little too enthusiastically in a sea of grief) begins to set in. He keeps opening doors and closing them too abruptly, and the detective work continues.
But instead of plumbing deeper into the lives of those on the reservation, the gripping, solidly built “Wind River” begins to go wayward in its tracks. The over-the-top showdown finale comes largely out of the blue after clues lead Banner to a nearby oil digging crew.
Still, no one will confuse “Wind River” for anything slipshod. Its densely colorful dialogue and powerful sense of place make Sheridan a singular talent, with, hopefully, more directing in front him. Those are qualities to which the late Sam Shepard — a less artfully composed chronicler of men in shadows of western myths — may well have tipped his hat. He certainly would have been a welcome presence in Sheridan country.
Rated: R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, language. Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen. Director: Taylor Sheridan. Running time: 111 minutes. Theater: Edwards 21, Flicks.