“Wind River,” the latest from acclaimed screenwriter/director Taylor Sheridan, does something remarkable. It exudes empathy and warmth despite occurring in the most formidably harsh winter setting — on a remote Native American reservation in Wyoming, where no humans were ever meant to live.
The dangers of the environment are obvious in the opening scene of a young woman running barefoot through the snow at night, breathing heavily and clearly fearing for her life. We don’t know what has happened, why she’s running, or where she’s trying to go. But when she collapses in the snow, we know big trouble lies ahead.
In what turns out be perfect casting, Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, the hunter/warden for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who has been asked to track down a lion and her two cubs who have been attacking livestock on the Wind River reservation.
While hunting for nature’s killers, he comes upon the human kind of killing when he finds the body of the young woman from the opening scene.
Lambert identifies the woman immediately. She was best friends with his late daughter. And he makes a call to the tribal police, who then seek help from the FBI.
Enter Elizabeth Olsen as woefully underprepared FBI agent Jane Banner. She arrives on the scene during a snowstorm, and she doesn’t even bring gloves. But Lambert takes pity on her, gets her the right gear and takes her to the crime scene.
In a conventional screenplay, you might expect some sort of romantic relationship to develop between the two. But Sheridan is an unconventional screenwriter, one who used a five-act structure in 2015’s widely acclaimed drug-war drama “Sicario.”
Instead, we get a meditation on the failure of U.S. policy toward Native Americans, as well as a rumination on personal failures, some of which are so horrific that the characters will never find that so-called closure.
Throughout the movie, it’s clear that no one should have ever tried to make a home in the gorgeously forbidding mountains of Wyoming. But that’s where some of the Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone were sent in the late 1860s. And that’s where some from those tribes have wasted away ever since.
Like Sheridan’s Texas crime drama “Hell or High Water,” the script for “Wind River” revolves around character and social consciousness. And the casting is almost flawless.
Most notable is Gil Birmingham as Martin, the seemingly stoic father of the young woman who dies in the opening scene. Birmingham, who co-starred as a Texas Ranger with a cantankerous Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water,” is more than deserving of a supporting actor Oscar nomination for “Wind River.” His reactions to the news of his daughter’s death is one of the most touching scenes on screen in recent years.
Graham Greene delivers his typical sly wisdom as Ben, the tribal police chief who decides to work with the greenhorn FBI agent, despite his misgivings. And Kelsey Asbile gives a standout performance as Natalie, the woman in the opening scene, whose story is told during a flashback.
“Wind River” has all the right elements of a great crime drama. But it has much more — a gut-wrenching big heart.
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene
Rating: R for violence, rape, adult themes, language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes