Wind River: A Film by Taylor Sheridan

You’d think the Western was played out. That after Peckinpah’s wild bunch had shot its way through a line of temperance marchers, Jodorowsky had treated us to his gunslinger-and-naked-kid acid trip of El Topo, and we’d watched Charles Bronson’s and Jill Ireland’s three hour love story in the comedy Western From Noon Till Three there’d be nothing left. Nope. The Western is the zombie-genre of American film. Just when you think it’s dead it heaves back to life.

That’s not always a bad thing. For every tepid remake of The Magnificent Seven, there’s a nuanced, subtle movie like Wind River that reassures us the form still has life in it yet, even if it’s set in contemporary Wyoming rather than a once upon a time west.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a US Fish and Wildlife game tracker. His job is to hunt and kill wild predators that avail themselves of the easy pickings from the local livestock. He’s very good at what he does. While stalking a mountain lion that pulled down a rancher’s steer, he finds the shoeless body of a young woman frozen in the snow.

So begins Wind River by writer/director Taylor Sheridan. After the gruesome discovery, FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, in a role that both channels Jody Foster’s turn as Clarice Starling and somehow remains independent of it) arrives to investigate the murder.

As an outsider unfamiliar with the area’s people and geography, Olsen enlists Renner’s help.

And that’s pretty much it. Which doesn’t nearly convey the subtle beauty of this film or its timeless themes. I don’t mean to scare anyone away with the idea that it’s simply a mood piece. Wind River is a Western thriller and it first and foremost fulfills the requirement that such things be entertaining.

Part of the credit lies with Olsen and Renner. Maybe it’s their history of playing alongside each other in the Avengers franchise, but they demonstrate a wonderful naturalness in their interactions. Kudos must also go to Olsen for lightly carrying the role of the audience stand-in. That spot can be overbearing, but Olsen (backed by impeccable writing) makes it invisible. It’s also a role that can easily devolve into a babe in the woods stereotype. Not this character. She’s a determined woman who quickly finds her bearings and can hold her own as well as anyone in Wind River.

And a rough world it is. Loneliness is pervasive. Actual or impending violence informs almost every moment. Death looms large. From the opening scene of a young woman running across the nighttime snowpack beneath a blazingly white moon, to the final, agonizing denouement, Wind River offers no concessions. Beautiful, nuanced, sensitive even in the depiction of the secondary characters, it is nonetheless bleak.

Wind River is Sheridan’s first time directing a high-end picture. He earned an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of the 2016 hit Hell or High Water, another contemporary Western that reinvigorated the genre. That earlier movie followed sibling bank robbers in southwest Texas. But no mere crooks, this duo. They robbed banks to save their momma’s farm from foreclosure.

Their capers provided a vicarious charge. It was fun watching the pair deal justice to those faceless banks with their predatory loans. The Texas setting was as arid and barren as the society that had abandoned the brothers and their fellow citizens to the rapacious whims of overly air-conditioned robber accountants.

Wind River trades desert for snow and cold. This time however, the environment is both symbol and foe. Despite all the ugly human activity, we’re in Jack London territory. The real opponent is nature. In Wind River it preys upon the good and the bad equally. Victory does not rest in taking back what was once yours, but in mere survival.

Wind River. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. 1hr. 47 min. In wide release.