Every year Hollywood releases a handful of thrillers that are well-made, good entertainment, but are fairly anonymous. They fill a market for solid mysteries. They can’t scratch the primal itch that makes big time action flicks so reliable at the box office, but they have the benefit of treating their audience like adults, which is nice. Wind River is one of those films.
From writer/director Taylor Sheridan (who penned Sicario and Hell or High Water), Wind River is a murder mystery set in and around the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. A local Fish and Wildlife Service agent by the name of Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), while out hunting predators who have been killing local livestock, discovers the murdered body of a young Arapaho woman named Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille). The chief of the tribal police, Ben Shoyo (Graham Greene), is too far understaffed to mount an investigation, so the federal government sends in a lone FBI agent to find out what happened. She is Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a young agent who is in over her head. To her credit, she knows this, and instead of withering in the face of the problem, confronts it.
The murder is particularly stinging for Cory. His ex-wife (Julia Jones) is an Arapaho. The two of them are still mourning the death of their teenaged daughter a few years before. And, to add to the misery, Natalie was best friends with the Lambert’s daughter.
Banner and Ben Shoyo follow protocol while carrying out the investigation. But Cory sees things a little differently. He is a lifelong woodsman, a tracker extraordinaire. While everyone is poring over the crime scene, Cory is following the tracks in the snow. His methods bear fruit, of course (otherwise the main character of the film would be a useless idiot), and the mystery begins to clear.
As much boilerplate ideas as there are in this film, it is kept lively and interesting because of the excellent rural location and circumstances of the reservation. It also helps that a good cast was assembled. Jeremy Renner comes close to hamming it up at multiple points during the film, but he always pulled back. His character is supposed to be understated to the point of mumbling, so the performance required a fair amount of restraint. I’m sure his job was also made easier by its familiarity. This is yet another film where Renner finds himself playing a tough guy who spends time behind a rifle scope. I’m not sure how many characters like this he has played, but I would not be surprised at all if this film pushed him into the double digits.
As for Olsen, she has a natural, porcelain delicacy that raises the degree of difficulty for her playing a cop. It strains suspension of disbelief. But then her seriousness and the way she otherwise carries the character makes up for that.
While Wind River is a good mystery, a viewer will have to sit through some familiar stuff. It’s almost a cliché to call out cliché, but guess what? There’s cliché in this movie. Wrap oneself up in it. Use it to fight off the cold.
But if there is one thing that just can’t be ignored, it’s that this film is basically an extended episode of Longmire. Just about every character in this film has an analog in that TV show. The location is even similar. Of course, there are no more new ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with having a second set of characters chasing down murderers in Wyoming, but would it have killed Sheridan to move the action to Utah or Idaho? He could have gotten the exact same message across and lost none of the atmosphere, while making an easy effort to distance his movie from an already existing intellectual property. That little thing, and maybe another tweak or two here and there, would have gone a long way to giving this film a more unique identity.