This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. It’s the land of you’re on your own.
An American flag flying upside down is the first sign that we are entering a land where people have given up hope that their country cares about them. Wind River Reservation in Wyoming is a desolate place, even more so during the unforgiving winter months. Wildlife Ranger Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), does care even though life has taken nearly everything from him. His wife, Wilma (Julia Jones), left him after their daughter was found murdered miles from the family home, her assailants never caught. Tracking a mountain lion that has been killing local livestock, Corey finds the body of another young woman, Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), once his daughter’s best friend. He may not have been able to find his daughter’s killers, but he promises justice to Natalie’s parents, Annie and Martin. (Touching performances by Althea Sam and Gil Birmingham).
Because the death happened on a reservation, the FBI is called in from the bureau’s nearest office in Las Vegas. Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) reinforces the local opinion that the government doesn’t take their tragedies seriously when she shows up in stilleto heels. But Banner is more than up for the job. She quickly assesses the situation and takes steps to build bridges with Ben, head of the tribal police (Graham Greene, always a force on screen), and to enlist Corey’s help. Although there is evidence that Natalie was sexually assaulted and sustained other injuries, her death was ultimately caused by exposure. The medical examiner resists calling her death a homicide, despite Jane’s pleas. Without reinforcements coming from the FBI, the clock is tickng and Jane and Corey need to identify the killer quickly before she’s pulled from the investigation.
Natalie’s brother, Chip (Martin Sensmeier), lives with meth-head Sam (Tokala Clifford), both well known to the local authorites. Jane’s attempt to question them ends badly, although Corey manages to learn from Chip that Natalie had been seeing Matt (Jon Bernthal), part of a group of hard core men working on an oil dig. With Corey resuming his hunt for the mountain lion and without FBI backup, Jane has to work with Ben and the tribal police, the officers untrained for the violent confrontation that quickly unfolds.
After penning screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan makes an impressive directorial debut with Wind River. His script doesn’t sacrifice character development for a thrilling plot line. Even the supporting actors (Tantoo Cardinal, as Cory’s mother-in-law, for example), make a lasting impression. While the scenery is stunning, Sheridan never fails to remind us that the cold weather is dangerous. The film opens with a barefoot Natalie in a bright blue jacket running across the snowy terrain. We know she won’t survive.
Jeremy Renner hasn’t had a role this good for a long time and he does the most with it. While he’s terrific when he has to use a weapon, the scene where he talks about losing his daughter is moving. Failing to protect his daughter serves to embolden him to find Natalie’s killer.
Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham
The revelation (for me) is Elizabeth Olsen. She’s very convincing as an FBI agent who is not only smart but fearless. Kudos to Sheridan for making Olsen’s FBI character tough but not arrogant. Some of what she encounters on the reservation is foreign to her, particularly Natalie’s mother sobbing and cutting herself with a knife as a way to deal with her daughter’s death. But Jane takes in the scene without attempting to intervene.
We do learn what happened to Natalie, how she ended up fleeing for her life, willing to face the brutal elements rather than those who were out to do her harm. In the end, Corey keeps his promise to Martin, the two bonding over their losses. And Corey has some advice for his friend, not to avoid grieving, but to embrace it as the only way to keep Natalie’s memory alive.
Top photo: Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner
Photos: Fred Hayes
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