‘Wind River’ Film Review

Expands far beyond its remote location.

I love a good police procedural movie. The escapism you get from the movies is even more effective when there’s a grisly murder involved and the presence of a detective, and that detective’s singular focus is figuring out said murder. This is especially true when the murder occurs in some place far away from your own. In this case it’s a frozen expanse in Wyoming, where director/writer Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River is set. The thing is, this film takes some very real issues as its subject matter and these issues, especially for Australians, are likely to hit close to home, all the way from that very far away place.

A body is found by hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), while he’s out shooting wolves. Crystal clear images shot by cinematographer Ben Richardson emphasise the big void of white snow, made stark by the blood splatters from the wolves Cory has in his sights. The body is a woman’s, native American, frozen in the snow. She’s barefoot, and a long way from anything.

Cory is stoic when he finds the body and brings it back to the police. He knows her name is Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) and who she was mixed up with. Renner plays the role with exaggerated reserve. When he talks, it’s as if he doesn’t want to open his mouth too wide. His words are poetic, “How do you gauge someone’s will to live?”, but he mumbles – he’s not showy about it. We soon learn that he’s divorced and has a son. The reason for Cory’s frosty relationship with his wife Wilma (Julia Jones) is revealed later on, but these family scenes feel like afterthoughts, set up to serve Cory’s backstory. They add little drama to the plot.

To help solve the murder, FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in. Banner’s introductory sequence is a pitch perfect bit of film writing, one which Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), excels at. Banner has shown up alone, with a rental car and a thin coat. Sherriff Ben (Graham Greene), along with Cory and another officer, all stand on the porch with crossed arms and blank expressions, while Banner shivers in the freezing winds below them. They’re looking down on the FBI’s efforts for a murder in their small town, sending a young agent with no connection to the place, by herself, dressed inappropriately for the weather. Olsen wears her character’s badge like a shield. She doesn’t let the officers get to her but she’s ignorant as to why they’re so standoffish – she showed up, didn’t she?

It’s only when the coroner informs Banner that because Natalie died from the cold, he can’t classify it as a murder without further evidence. Banner balks and tells him if he doesn’t classify it as a murder, she can’t call in the backup needed to help solve the case. Olsen’s character is slowly drawn into the forgotten wastelands of this American frontier landscape, and it’s a fine performance by an excellent actor. Back in 2011 she deftly portrayed the complex psychology of an ex cult member in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and she has continued to create believable performances with consistently idiosyncratic delivery. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the role here provides little more than someone for Renner to bounce off of. Sheridan writes men better than he does women.

From here on out, there are exceedingly tense standoffs and marvellously paced shootouts – one in a dilapidated house is thrilling and ensures a palpable sense of danger. The film sags often, especially when it tries to draw more out of Cory’s personal life, as if Sheridan doesn’t trust Renner to communicate the character’s inner turmoil.

What the film really does, and why it has stuck with me, is take its audiences to the outskirts of the mainland – America’s, but it could be almost anywhere. Far away from the cities and the emergency response teams are the traditional owners of the land, battling against the harsh weather and left entirely to their own devices. Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham, giving the best performance in the film) sits with Cory and breaks down at one point, furious at how helpless he is and how meaningless his daughter’s death, like so many others, will likely be. Wind River takes audiences to a place where these stories are real and, as Banner discovers, impossible to ignore. It’s a flawed film, for sure, but flawed films can still do great things.