There’s something reassuringly old-fashioned about Wind River, a taut thriller set largely on an Indian reservation in the snowy high regions of Wyoming, where Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) a local huntsman and tracker, discovers the dead body of a young local native American woman. Puzzlingly, despite the freezing temperatures, she is barefoot. An FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) flies in from Las Vegas to head up a homicide investigation; but she quickly recognises how foreign this hostile terrain is to her, and enlists Lambert, a man with deep local knowledge, to assist her.
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Jeremy Renner is an actor who can convey a lot with few words; he proved the point in the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, as the sergeant of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. In Wind River, is Lambert is again a taciturn, introverted type with an economical turn of phrase; he describes the Wyoming terrain as all ‘snow and silence.’ It’s a terrific phrase; bad deeds can literally be buried in its white wastes, and its inhabitants don’t talk much to outsiders.
Renner’s ‘man of few words’ approach may remind you of actors in films from 50 years ago: Gary Cooper, say, or even - at a pinch - Clint Eastwood. Some of their best roles were in westerns, a genre that could encompass Wind River, though it has a modern twist.
The film’s writer and director Taylor Sheridan, also wrote last year’s underrated but excellent Hell or High Water, starring Jeff Bridges – itself a film that could be classified as a ‘neo-western.’ Sheridan has spoken of his interest in telling stories on film that explore what remains of the American frontier, and Wind River fits that description perfectly.
Lambert and Banner encounter hostile territory in more than one sense: the climate is daunting in its extremes, while the Indian population tend to be reticent when questioned. And then there’s a gang of loutish white ‘security contractors,’ constantly on the verge of brutish behaviour, who seem to regard Wind River as a place literally beyond the law.
Beneath his quiet exterior, Renner’s Lambert has suffered his own share of heartbreak – a family tragedy that echoes the crime he and Banner are trying to solve. A remarkable scene in which he confronts the dead girl’s grief-stricken father (the great veteran American Indian actor Gil Birmingham) is as moving as anything I’ve seen on film in ages.
There’s a subtext to this story, of course, rooted in the prejudice against native Americans that has existed ever since white settlers colonised the United States. And it must be said that some scenes in the later stage of Wind River are jarringly violent.
Still, this is a splendid, grown-up piece of film-making, and if any doubts existed about Sheridan’s talents as writer and director, they are dispelled here. It would be wrong to overlook the contribution of its British director of photography Ben Richardson, whose camera confirms – even celebrates – the harsh beauty of the high Wyoming wastes.