When we encounter a teenage girl racing for her life in moonlight at the opening of the mystery thriller “Wind River,” the only visible antagonist is the pitiless winter terrain. Following her barefoot run across widescreen vistas until she drops, seeing the crimson smears she leaves on the monochrome tundra, the film takes a gripping dive from pristine white landscape and into bloody shadows.
The next shot showcases sheep being protected from a wolf pack by a professional animal tracker and sniper for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Marksmen assigned to pick off threats to the human population are harder to find. The weak in that flock are often eaten alive.
Wind River is the name of Wyoming’s only American Indian reservation, 2.2 million acres of mountain and snow, poverty and drug addiction, crime and predators — not all of them wolf or bear. It’s also the setting for a classy shocker that adds to the already impressive filmography of Taylor Sheridan.
Here the screenwriter of the excellent quasi-westerns “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” proves extremely talented on both sides of the camera. Directing his own script, he displays the cool, confident control of a seasoned veteran, assisted by an eerie, otherworldly score composed and performed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
The rifleman of the opening is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who discovers the frozen body of the Native American girl in the wilds. His report triggers an investigation by the FBI to determine if her death was a homicide committed on the reservation and thereby under federal jurisdiction. Because such cases aren’t priorities for an agency that works on terrorism, organized-crime and drug-trafficking cases, the assignment goes to novice Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), dispatched from her Las Vegas home base.
She’s smart, serious and tougher than she appears. Nonetheless, Banner is out of her depth in more than the vast snowpack. She needs an experienced guide to help her explore the teen’s death. Lambert joins her probe, a decision that is morally right but mentally agonizing.
He’s a man of action who would just as soon swing a snow shovel into a fugitive’s face as waste his homemade ammunition, but he has motives for a specific type of revenge. Strong and stoic as he is, beneath his Stetson and John Wayne reserve, Lambert is still grieving the death of his daughter several years before under similar circumstances. That crisis ruptured his marriage to Wilma (Julia Jones), who views him with icy, polite restraint when he visits their young boy in her home. His FBI gig cuts into time he’s supposed to spend with his son, and gradually we learn that he sees it as less a matter of enforcing justice than of settling personal affairs.
There are fine roles for the broadly Native American supporting cast, from Kelsey Asbille as the victim (seen in a flashback sequence) to the ever-outstanding Gil Birmingham as her devastated father, who paints a “death face” of mourning on his features. As he explains to his old friend Lambert, it’s tradition, but there was no one remaining to tell him what it means or how to do it.
In a richly layered story, Sheridan explores issues of tribalism in gender relations, within and across Indian and Anglo lines. The head of the reservation’s police force (Graham Greene in dryly ironic form) is in charge of “six officers covering a territory the size of Rhode Island.” He gets the same level of dismissal among his citizens that Banner receives from the private security team patrolling the central area leased by an oil company. Sometimes the hostility is expressed through rough talk, sometimes with weapons in hand. In this film, a standard police interview can turn into an armed confrontation at knuckle-whitening speed.
Banner, caught by disbelief just as the viewers are, is a solid audience surrogate as Sheridan uncorks shocking sequences that turn the story’s character focus and timeline in unexpected directions. Sheridan forms solid drama from the battle between community law and the feral law of the frontier. Piling bodies everywhere as it approaches its climax, “Wind River” is a new chapter in that endless battle. As Lambert says, “you survive or you surrender.”