To talk about the story of “Wind River” doesn’t tell you much about why it’s a superior movie. The story deals with a murder on an Indian reservation and an FBI investigation by an officer who comes from out of town, and if you’ve made it this far into the sentence, I congratulate you, because I might have stopped either at the Indian reservation or the part about the FBI. “Wind River” sounds like the usual thing, but it’s not.
Yes, the story here performs its function. It’s interesting and at times even exciting and suspenseful, but its emotional effect has much to do with the characters and our investment in them. Taylor Sheridan, who wrote screenplays for “Sicario” and “Hell and High Water,” wrote and directed this with an unmistakable commitment to the place and the people he was depicting. He takes us somewhere. We learn the customs, and the world, and the weary philosophy that everyone seems to share, and come away almost feeling as if we’ve been there, or that these people and places have somehow become part of our interior landscape.
The movie is set in Wyoming, on an Indian reservation during the winter, at a time when everything isn’t just covered in snow, but practically buried in it. Everyone is slowed down. Going outside requires preparation and proper clothing. Walking is difficult. Driving is dangerous and complicated.
So what looks peaceful from a distance is actually perilous, and everything awful in human nature that you might expect to be suppressed by the temperature and the landscape is just bottled up and looking for ways to explode.
A young woman’s body is found in the snow, miles from shelter. Her feet are bare and frostbitten, and she has died from something most of us have never heard of, a process by which the lungs crystallize and hemorrhage from the cold. An autopsy reveals that she was raped, so she was running from something.
Jeremy Renner plays the hunter and tracker who finds her body, and it turns out that he knew her. She was a friend of his daughter, who died two years earlier and in pretty much the same way.
If this sounds like a crazy coincidence, a contrivance of the plot, it actually speaks to something far worse. Native American women have the highest rates of rape and assault in the country. So it’s not far-fetched that two girls who knew each other might suffer the same horrible fate.
Graham Greene plays the local police chief, but he has only a handful of officers tasked with policing an area the size of Rhode Island. So the FBI is brought in, but, inevitably, it’s just one officer, young and practically in training wheels, who knows nothing about Indian reservations or even cold weather. But as played by Elizabeth Olsen, she’s tough and wants to do a good job.
Most of the movie deals with the tracker and the agent and their collaboration to find the person responsible. The plot gives the story propulsion, and there is never a sense of things slowing down, and yet Sheridan finds time to expand into the character’s lives. Renner’s performance isn’t so much about presenting a certain kind of professional or illustrating a certain kind of person within a certain kind of environment as it is about presenting a portrait in grief.
Better still, it’s a portrait in living with grief and having it transform, in the words of Aeschylus, into “wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”
Renner is moving in this, and Olsen has a nice contained ferocity, which is a good and unsentimental choice for the character. But in some of the supporting and featured roles, there are stray moments that are hit too hard, that take “Wind River” into the realm of melodrama and almost past it, into absurdity. This is probably just a consequence of Taylor’s directing his own material and having no buffer between his impulses and what appears on screen.
All the same, “Wind River” is an impressive effort and an impressive result that opens up a world that most of us have never thought about and renders it with sorrow and vividness.