Taylor Sheridan is on a roll. After two decades as a supporting actor in Hollywood, including long-running roles on “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy,” he switched to writing in 2015. His first screenplay was for one of the best thrillers that year, Sicario. He followed that up with Hell or High Water, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Now he’s also taken over the directing chair for his third screenplay, Wind River. Where the first two movies were action flicks with a strong emphasis on character, Wind River flips the equation. It’s a character drama with searing explosions of action along the way.
The movie stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a hunter for Fish and Wildlife Service who eliminates predators such as wolves and mountain lions when they attack herds of sheep or cows in the central Wyoming area. It is rough, untamed country where there are miles between houses, and the Wind River Reservation takes up 2.2 million acres outside the towns of Lander and Riverton. Lambert picks up his son from his estranged wife Wilma (Julia Jones), who’s headed to Jackson Hole to interview for a job, and takes the boy to see his maternal grandparents on the reservation. Lambert’s former father-in-law, Ben (Apesanahkwat), shows Cory a cow killed by a mountain lion and its two cubs. Lambert goes hunting, but what he finds in the snow is the body of Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the daughter of his friend Martin (Gil Birmingham). She had run barefoot through the snow until her lungs burst from the cold.
Lambert and the reservation police chief, Ben (Graham Greene), meet an FBI agent dispatched to investigate the death. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is literally dropped into the wrong season; her regular assignment is in Florida, but she was attending a conference in Jackson which made her the closest agent. The medical examiner can’t call the case a homicide based solely on the cause of death, which would allow for the deployment of FBI agents. Instead, Jane’s on her own, and she recruits Lambert to help her discover why Natalie died as she did. She doesn’t know that Lambert is haunted by his own tragedy that closely mirrors the case.
Renner and Olsen have shared the screen twice before (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War). They have a mature chemistry together underlying their characterizations in this film. Renner’s Lambert reflects the stoic fatalism found on the surface of the residents, but beneath there’s a roiling ocean of emotions. Jane Banner could have been a comic fish-out-of-water character, but between Sheridan and Olsen they’ve created a character of intelligence who knows what she doesn’t know and seeks to compensate. The supporting cast is outstanding, in particular Gil Birmingham (who played Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water) as the father who can only grieve in private.
The story slides to tragedy as we learn what happened, though the movie has more hope than you usually find in such a film. Hope is needed in real life, since Native American women are the only population group for which figures on disappearances are not kept. While the movie was being filmed at the Wind River Reservation, tribal leaders visited Sheridan and told him at that time there were 12 unsolved murders of young women on the reservation, out of a population of 6000. Tribal police were stripped of the right to arrest and prosecute non-tribal people for crimes committed on the reservation in 1978. The jurisdictional mess caused by this has led to many perpetrators going undiscovered and unpunished.
As often happens, art reflects real life.