In a moonlit pre-credit sequence, a young native American woman flees across a snowbound landscape, barefoot and gasping for breath. It’s an arresting introduction, one which certainly grabs the viewer’s attention. This bleak and rather melancholic slowburner is based around the resulting investigation into the woman’s death, carried out on the remote Wind River reservation in Wyoming. Inspired by true events, it’s written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (author of Sicario and Hell and High Water). The events unfold in inhospitable mountainous landscapes, which are beautifully captured by Ben Richardson’s sweeping cinematography.
The woman’s body is found by veteran tracker, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), out hunting wolves. He instantly recognises the dead woman as Natalie, the former best friend of his late daughter who herself died in suspicious circumstances, something that Lambert has never fully come to terms with. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to handle the investigation, arriving at the location dressed in high heels and severely ill-equipped to deal with the hostile weather conditions. She wisely enlists Lambert (and his snowmobile) to get her from place to place in order to talk to Natalie’s family and to help her interview the list of potential suspects.
Renner and Olsen submit moving performances and manage to generate some real chemistry between them, and there’s a heartfelt (and never patronising) view of the local Native American’s plight as they struggle to survive in a world that has robbed them of everything they ever valued. There are nice turns from Apesanahkwat as world-weary tribal police chief, Dan Crowheart, and from Graham Greene as the dead girl’s father, Ben, struggling to understand the iniquities of life on a reservation.
A pity, then, that the final third of the movie squanders all these good intentions by making an abrupt detour into much more cliched territory – there’s an extended gunfight, some harsh ‘eye-for-an-eye’ vengeance, a horribly graphic rape scene and men generally a-doin’ what men gotta do – at least in Sheridan’s macho world view. It’s almost as though two quite different movies have been clumsily stitched together.
Wind River is worth seeing for that ravishing location photography and those appealing performances, but there’s the distinct conviction that it would have been a better film if it had stuck to its guns, rather than firing them off in all directions.