By Karen Gordon
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker and hunter who works for the US Wildlife Service, and whose jurisdiction includes the Shoshone/Arapaho Wind River reservation. But that’s not his only connection to the place. Cory’s ex-wife is from the “rez,” and their young son’s grandparents still live there.
We get our first sense that something is not good when Lambert picks up his son, and his wife expresses her concern about keeping the boy safe while he’s there. Her sense of dread, as it turns out, is not misplaced. While tracking a problem cougar, Lambert finds the body of a young woman from the reserve, lying in the snow. Lambert knows who she is. There will be another grieving family there.
The death is suspicious, and time is of the essence. Blizzards are blowing through the area covering evidence. But federal law requires the Wind River’s police chief, Ben, played by the redoubtable Graham Greene, to call in the FBI to do the investigation. Past experience speaks loudly here. Wind River has lost enough people to violence so that this latest death adds to the weariness and sense of futility. No one on the rez is expecting much from the feds.
And it doesn’t add confidence when the FBI arrives in the person of a young agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) without the proper gear for a winter search. She gets an earful from local Alice Crowheart (Tantoo Cardinal), while they outfit her for the freezing temperatures.
Banner ’s youth may be an advantage here. She enlists Lambert, with his knowledge of the terrain and tracking skills, to help her figure out what might have happened.
The cast is uniformly strong. But it’s especially terrific to see Jeremy Renner out of his action mode and back in a piece that gives him a chance to play a character who says more with his silence than with his words. It’s a deep and soulful performance. Olsen also adds to her impressive resume with a grounded performance
Taylor Sheridan, who directed from his own screenplay, says Wind River is the third of his frontier trilogy - the previous two being Sicario (directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve), and last year’s Hell or High Water, which was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
All three stories are crime thrillers, set in modern day America where the characters find themselves caught or stuck. They’re fighting against a system stacked against them in some way. In “Sicario”, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is unwittingly pulled into a level of the drug war on the Mexican border that is more corrupt than she could envisage. In Hell or High Water, the economic recovery has eluded Chris Pine’s character to the point where he’s willing to break the law in order to give himself a chance to survive.
Taylor’s characters, aren’t by nature transgressive. But, this is the world in which they’ve found themseves. Sheridan puts his characters in circumstances that force them to hover over the cracks in the moral universe, not necessarily of their own choosing.
In “Wind River”, Renner’s Lambert isn’t First Nations. He married into it and lived there with his now ex-wife and his son’s grandparents, His former in-laws are there and he is tied to the people and the place in deeper ways. Thepeople and the place are suffering from more than a century of the government’s systematic neglectthat has torn them from their roots, their culture, and Lambert is a part of that now.
It’s fitting that Sheridan chose to make this his first film. “Wind RIver” may his most overtly political film yet. TheThe neglect of indigenous communities underpines the story. The damage is implicit and explicit.
But “Wind River’ isn’t a lecture. Sheridan succeeds first, by making an entertaining and satisfying movie by focusing on solving a crime that makes for a riveting thriller. At the heart of the story, is something much more universal and more present: The despair of a grieving parent. The despair of a culture fighting to recover it’s dignity.
Like the best crime thrillers “Wind River” works because of its resonance.
Karen Gordon is a freelance writer/broadcaster who reviews movies Fridays on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. She’s covered him, music and popular culture for 20 years in radio, TV and print. She's also a creative producer, series story editor and writer for documentary/lifestyle TV and is the co-writer of two award-winning cookbooks, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita and Made in Italy. Karen still gets a thrill when the lights go down and the movie begins.