He cements that reputation — though not without a couple of minor missteps — by writing and directing “Wind River.”
Set on the sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation in mountainous central Wyoming, this snowbound mystery is triggered by the death of a teenage Arapaho girl. Apparently she ran for several miles barefoot through a blizzard before succumbing to subzero temperatures. But what — or whom — was she running from?
Her body is discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a hunter for the wildlife service whose job is to eliminate wolves, cougars and other predators dining on domestic livestock. Soon he’ll be tracking down two-legged predators.
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On one level “Wind River” is a buddy movie pairing the woods-smart Cory with Florida-reared Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), an FBI agent dispatched to investigate what appears to be a murder on tribal land. He knows every snowfield and ravine within hundreds of square miles; she shows up without so much as a pair of long johns.
But as seems always to be the case with a Sheridan film, just as important as the mystery is its milieu.
In this case it’s a world of natural beauty and aching poverty, dying traditions and doped-up youth. Here white assumptions collide with Native American realities. Resentments and prejudices can surface at any time.
Renner’s Cory is the perfect guide through these conflicting cultures. Born nearby and as comfortable in a cowboy hat as a fur-lined parka, he’s divorced from an Arapaho woman with whom he has a young son. In short, he’s a man with one foot planted in the white world and the other in Indian country.
Sheridan’s screenplay provides plenty of thumbnail portraits of colorful characters.
Cory’s former father-in-law is patiently awaiting a breakdown in the white man’s civilization. He’ll find great amusement in that day.
The weary tribal police chief (Graham Greene) has just about given up on trying to patrol an area the size of Rhode Island with just six officers. Mostly he cleans up messes.
The dead girl’s father (Gil Birmingham) appears defiant and angry when questioned by Olsen’s out-of-touch FBI agent but collapses in tears in the presence of his old friend Cory. We learn that Cory’s own teenage daughter died mysteriously several years before. Now the two men are joined by grief.
And then there are the young people who without job prospects or hope spend their days selling and snorting drugs.
It’s not a pretty picture, and if “Wind River” has a major flaw it’s that the sardonic humor that propelled “Hell or High Water” is absent here. The film’s unrelenting glumness threatens to become oppressive.
Or even worse, preachy. Often the film seems about to collapse beneath the weight of Sheridan’s visual and aural symbolism.
Good thing, then, that there’s relief in Ben Richardson’s gorgeous cinematography, the unobtrusive but evocative musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and a sound mix that captures the crunch of snow and the whispering of wind with a hyperrealistic flair.
“Wind River” does unravel its central mystery, although I can’t be the only one who finds it a bit contrived and far-fetched.
Still, Renner and Olsen are such solid performers that they don’t have to “play big” to keep our attention.
And with its wide-open vistas, “Wind River” proves that, yes, there’s still life in those Western motifs, even if now our hero rides a snowmobile instead of a pinto.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language.