Autumn is upon us, schools and universities are back in session, the last of the big summer tentpole movies have been and gone, and in the pause before the onset of serious awards-bait, we have a chance of a slightly more interesting and intelligent type of genre movie. This is also an opportunity for people who get their biggest pay-checks for appearing in movies about killer robots and giant monsters to show that they still have what it takes as credible actors and not just the basis for action figures. Thus, we find Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen appearing in Taylor Sheridan's Wind River.
Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a US Fish and Wildlife Service Officer who is also a lethal rifle shot (nice to see that Renner shows no sign of becoming typecast – I can think of at least a dozen movies where he plays a sniper, a special forces operative, an assassin, or something similar). He describes himself as a hunter, but one of the things the film quietly suggests is that the difference between a hunter and a sniper is basically down to where you happen to be pointing your gun. Lambert is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, on the trail of a mountain lion, when he comes across the half-dressed corpse of a young woman, frozen solid inside a snowdrift.
The authorities are summoned, including happened-to-be-in-the-area FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen) – Banner originally hails from Florida, so the wilds of Wyoming in the depths of winter are not exactly her comfort zone. A medical examination takes place, and many blood-curdling details relating to exactly how one dies of exposure when underdressed in a blizzard are passed on to the audience, but the most significant one is that, although she was attacked, the girl's cause of death was technically exposure, not actual murder, which means Banner will not be given the full support and resources of the FBI as she works on the case – the local Tribal Police Chief (Graham Greene) is not surprised.
Still, Lambert is willing to pitch in, which is probably just as well, as the answers to the mystery of the girl's death lie somewhere out in the snowy wilderness. Many grim truths about the inhabitants of Wind River threaten to come to light, provided Lambert and Banner survive to discover them – the land itself here can be as deadly as any criminal…
I really should keep better track of my up-and-coming American writer-directors. All the way through Wind River I found myself thinking that there was something about this film, the strength of the writing and dialogue, the sense of time and place, the elegant unfolding of the plot, which put me rather in mind of Hell or High Water from last year. And, of course, that was another movie written by Taylor Sheridan – if you want a smart, tough thriller set in the wide-open spaces of the US of Stateside, Sheridan is turning into a very good bet.
Once again, it's a little tricky to pin down exactly what kind of movie this is – there are elements of the investigative-procedural, of course (visits to the path lab and so on), but also sections with a strong western vibe to them. Renner spends a fair chunk of the film in a cowboy hat, and while he isn't strictly speaking a lawman, his character is definitely out for justice in a certain very specific way.
Ordinarily, films which give house room to the notion of (for want of a better expression) frontier justice make me rather uncomfortable, as it strikes me as a very dubious message to putting into a piece of entertainment. Wind River manages to get away with it, much to my surprise, probably because it contextualises the idea so thoroughly and seems to be presenting it fairly dispassionately. It's inevitably a bleak idea, but then this is a largely bleak film. It is, I would say, normal for films in this kind of setting to engage in a little social commentary on the lot of the inhabitants of reservations, and Wind River is no exception – the icy setting reflects the death of hope which has come to afflict so many of the film's characters, and emphasises that this is a place profoundly different from America's urban centres – this is a place from which only the strong can emerge unscathed.
To be honest, the murder-mystery element of Wind River's plot is not particularly complex or challenging, but then the film is about other things – as mentioned, the loss of hope, and the corrosive effects of grief and guilt. The film needs considerable heft for this to work, and gets it mostly from Jeremy Renner, who gives a really impressive performance, achieving that neat trick of revealing everything about a character who really doesn't speak much or show real emotion in the usual course of events. Olsen is also very good – one hopes she will break out of the genre ghetto at some point. Then again, this is a film with consistently strong performances from a largely unknown cast (although Jon Bernthal pops up for a brief cameo at a crucial moment).
On the other hand, the film also contains some well-staged action, and what I took away from it was not really much to do with the characters or plot but a general sense of people struggling to find reasons to live – and, of course, the magnificent landscape of Montana in winter.
I suspect I'm making Wind River sound like an incredibly bleak and joyless experience, and while it's not completely bereft of lighter moments, in general this is a serious and thoughtful film. And while it is true that the film does not shy away from the repugnant nature of some of the crimes involved, I think that's infinitely preferable to a film in which people are casually blown away by the dozen and sexual assault is treated mainly as a seasoning element to make a film just a little bit more piquant for the jaded viewer.
Wind River is not a light or frothy film, but it does pretty much everything you would want from a film of this type – the drama and thriller elements complement each other flawlessly, the performances are good, the atmosphere is almost palpable, and the theme of the film is clear without the audience being beaten about the head by it. This is a very fine film.