Cinestudio Preview: "Wind River" is a Thoughtful Thriller

It would feel like a poor pun to say that the mystery/crime thriller Wind River is chilling, especially considering that easily eighty percent of it takes place in the snow. On the Wyoming Indian Reservation from which the film derives its title, there is an atmosphere of wintry desolation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a stoic animal tracker and hunter on the reservation. Renner’s character waits on cliffsides, camouflaged in snow-white, and picks off coyotes and other predators for his career. The stark solitude of the setting takes on a far more ominous feel when Lambert happens upon the body of an eighteen-year-old girl, frozen in the snow.
It is at this point that Wind River must move through the familiar territory of the investigation plotline. Thankfully, the film makes unusual use of emotional realism in dealing with the horror of the crime. Enter rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen.) Banner is unprepared for the specifics of the case she has been assigned, and often shows her inexperience. She arrives without enough layers of protection against the sub-zero temperatures, and fumbles with her role as an outsider among the Native American community on the Res. The two central characters both seem to benefit from each other: Lambert knows the land, the people, and the natural dangers of the place, while Banner, always procedural, leads the case.
Director Taylor Sheridan, the writer of the critical darlings Sicario and Hell Or High Water presents the unfolding mystery with excellent pacing, and drives the moments of action with an emphasized sense of character development. A lesser filmmaker would likely have presented this ad-hoc detective team with a parade of “suspects,” and walked into the trap of a third-act twist. Instead, Sheridan’s story is more preoccupied with the way lives are impacted by terrible loss, and how the truth is never as simple as it might appear.
The hunt for the killer is never an amusement here. Calling Wind River a “mystery” feels incorrectly whimsical, as the film deals not only with issues of rape and murder, but also speaks on another level to the cost of subjugation and the abandonment of communities. It owes the basis for some of its plot to the revenge stories at the heart of many a classic western film. If Renner is the gruff man of few words who never misses a shot, his goal can only be to serve a kind of cosmically appropriate brand of justice to the person who committed the crime. Renner plays his character as an expert on both hunting predators and coping with loss. He seems to work best when his character is directly in contrast to Olsen’s frustrated Agent Banner. Their chemistry throughout the investigation, though muted, is clear. Wind River lays an obvious groundwork for a romantic connection between these two, but senses that it would be disastrous to fulfill it explicitly. With that kind of distraction at its heart, the crisp and deadly atmosphere of the rest of the film would be thrown off course. As they are, Olsen’s and Renner’s performances are rock solid, even if the unattainable Hollywood beauty of both actors sometimes feels a touch inauthentic. Gil Birmingham’s role as the grieving father of the victim is heartbreaking and beautifully realized, and places him on a level with the leads.
That atmosphere is one of the most memorable parts of the film, and must have been extremely difficult to cultivate. The moodiness of the setting is bolstered by the raspy, violin-heavy score of the film, helmed by the endlessly taciturn musician Nick Cave.
The unconventionality of Wind River comes from its willingness to tackle old and commonplace film-making narrative ideas and approach them in a wholly new and highly convincing way. A perfect example comes near the end of the film, when the investigation team find themselves in a pistols-on-all-sides type standoff with a group who have uncertain motivations. Suddenly each person is a fully-realized character- everyone threatened by an immanent shootout copes with the stress in a way particular to them. Banner manages to talk the stunned combatants into holstering their guns, but only after two minutes of tense negotiation, and shouting from all sides. The ambiguity of the moment is curated into extreme tension on screen, and when the danger finally seems to be passed, the viewer is still not sure who is really lying.
Though the film’s color palette is very stark, there is little about its intricate plot that is black and white. Its fearless tendency to take risks, and choose the cerebral over the enjoyable is what makes it so very compelling. Wind River will play at Cinestudio from Thursday Oct 19 to Saturday Oct 21.

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