By Chaz Lipp

The Lowdown: Well acted and well paced, writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s modern Western is a riveting study of isolation and emotional despair—even if it bogs down a bit in action-thriller cliches before it’s over.

Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has crafted a mesmerizing study of isolation and despair in Wind River. It’s a thriller without many thrills and a mystery that isn’t actually that mysterious, but somehow none of that hinders the effectiveness of the movie. Much like his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Hell or High Water (but to an even greater degree, actually), Sheridan is more interested in character and atmosphere than conventional plot mechanics. Anchored by deeply felt performances by Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, and Gil Birmingham, Wind River displays Sheridan’s knack for mining emotions many might prefer to avoid.

Set on the desolate Wind River Indian Reservation (Park City, Utah stands in for the actual western Wyoming location), the story is set in motion with the discovery of the frozen body of a young woman. Brutalized and barefoot, the victim turns out to be 18-year-old Native American Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow, in a performance mostly seen via flashback). US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Renner) is on the case, along with Wind River Tribal Police Chief Ben (Greene).

It becomes clear at an early stage that Natalie was murdered, which brings FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen) to the scene. The medical examiner can’t official rule Natalie’s death a homicide—her lungs ruptured from breathing the extremely cold air—leaving Banner with a conundrum. She decides to stall in filing a report in order to work with expert wildlife tracker Lambert in uncovering the person (or people) behind Natalie’s murder. Much to the dismay of Natalie’s devastated parents Martin (Birmingham) and Annie (Althea Sam), there’s an overriding sense that the perpetrators of Natalie’s death may never be discovered.

The worst that can be said about Wind River is that it’s ultimately a “white savoir” story, with a clear-cut focus on the heroic tenacity of agents Lambert and Banner. We learn a great deal about Lambert, who lost his daughter to an unsolved murder some years ago—a trauma that resulted in the failure of his marriage to a Native American woman. This gives Lambert a connection to Martin that runs even deeper than their already-existing friendship. Birmingham is so good here, it’s too bad Sheridan didn’t feature him more. Ultimately the story that takes shape involves Lambert attempting to symbolically avenge his daughter while Banner strengthens her resolve (she’s portrayed as a not-quite rookie, with little experience in such a serious case).

The fate of some of the prominent Native American characters also reinforces Sheridan’s unfortunate pandering to white audiences, but ultimately Wind River isn’t fatally flawed. The pacing is still incredibly well balanced between moments of introspection, sequences dealing with the relative mundanity of police work, and eventually action. The latter category arrives rather inelegantly in the film’s third act, during which the character study begins to resemble something out of a Quentin Tarantino film. One can feel Sheridan stretching a bit too far to make Wind River commercially appealing, with shootouts (and clumsy exposition revealing details behind Natalie’s murder) suddenly taking a front-and-center position. But until then, his modern-day Western hits a lot of the right notes.

Wind River images: The Weinstein Company

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