WIND RIVER (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and strong language)
Released:  August 18, 2017
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Julia Jones, Gil Birmingham, Kelsey Asbille, Jon Bernthal

As a screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan tells crime stories that are set in ethnic and lower-class spheres, each with a deep thematic resonance. Sicario explored the drug trade on both sides of the border, and Hell or High Water tracked an East Texas crime spree concocted by the kinds of forgotten white males that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders spoke to, brothers who were victims of a rigged system run by financial elites.

Both films raised issues relevant and topical yet also taken for granted, especially the people in them. That contradictory dynamic is never more true than in Sheridan’s directorial debut, Wind River. It’s another crime thriller, and this time the marginalized subculture is life on an American Indian reservation.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a white man who, due to his marriage with a Native American (that has since failed), has become part of the life and community of a Wyoming reservation. He’s a gun-for-hire marksman, a legal poacher of wildlife predators that endanger local livestock.

It’s the dead of winter with a serious snowstorm looming. On one of his hunts, Cory comes across the body of a dead young Native woman out in the woods, frozen and bloodied, about five miles from the closest residence.

An FBI agent is sent in, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a young newbie from Vegas and a Floridian by birth, a.k.a. someone ill-equipped for this environment or what she’ll find there. As the local sheriff puts it, she’s emblematic of how federal entities view Native American territories: as afterthoughts.

Banner is more confident in her abilities than she probably should be, perhaps as much out of necessity as anything, but she’s also keen enough to quickly realize that she needs Lambert’s expertise, both as a hunter/tracker as well as someone who understands the area’s politics and cultural nuances.

Lambert is still haunted by a personal loss of his own, one that led to his divorce, which makes the whole situation more complicated and personal.

If there’s a noticeable difference in how effective Wind River is compared to Sheridan’s two recent and rightly praised films, it’s in the first act’s initial setup. It’s well-scripted in how it establishes the characters, culture, and crime, but it lacks the tension that directors Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water) were able to generate right out of the gate.

Sheridan plots things deftly, from narrative to relationships to the authenticity of the world we’re in, but it’s mostly expositional. An underlying, portentous sense of dread would’ve made Wind River more instantly compelling.

But what initially feels undercooked becomes explosive in the payoff.

As clues start to emerge and the investigation kicks into high gear, Sheridan more than makes up for whatever the first stretch lacked. In fact, the opening slow-burn belies just how intense things eventually become.

Sheridan displays taut filmmaking skills along with a confidence in crafting tone. Events turn volatile, then much darker, and ultimately more sinister than we possibly could’ve imagined. When the mystery is finally pulled away, the reality exposed is a rather brutal one (and brutally depicted; this is not for the squeamish).

True to Sheridan’s previous movies, the riveting genre elements do not subjugate or cheapen the issues that Sheridan has raised about our nation’s dismissive relegation of Native American society – especially the women in them.

Sheridan uses genre to magnify these issues, these tragedies, these injustices, and he never comes close to crossing that fine line of exploitation that has compromised similar thrillers.

On the contrary, Sheridan is able to make Wind River an unnerving, sobering parable about the rape of an entire people, one that’s not politically reductive. It indicts through grief, not a soapbox, the systematic suppression of a shared national humanity.

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