This film features Jeremy Renner, who plays Hawkeye in the Marvel movies and Graham Greene, known for Dancing With Wolves, both of whom I love. I was thrilled to see them both in a movie together. I also love mysteries and thrillers, like the series Longmire, set in Wyoming. What made this film especially intriguing is its setting on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. Not only does it have actors that I appreciate but the story sounded intriguing. I left the theatre thrilled by the realistic characters and the complex, compelling narrative.
Jeremy Renner plays US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert who finds the body of a young woman in the wilderness of the Wind River reservation. The body is Natalie Hanson, the daughter of one of his friends, Martin (Gil Birmingham). The girl is found in the snow with bare feet and little protection from the elements. The sheriff, Ben (Graham Greene) calls for the FBI who has more resources. They send rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) who is unprepared for the harsh climate and the mountainous isolated terrain of Wyoming. She quickly decides to employ Cory to assist her in dealing with the environment and to help her investigate the murder.
Amid Cory helping Jane track down the killers, we learn more about the complexity of world in which he lives, the dynamics of the reservation and of the losses dealt to Cory and those of the tribe. Martin, Natalie’s father, is able to tell them his daughter was spending time with a man but has no information about the man, not even his name. When Jane pushes why he didn’t know, he gets angry. As we learn, life on the reservation isn’t that simple. Only Cory is able to empathize, having lost his own daughter three years prior. Cory uses his expert tracking skills to help trace Natalie’s whereabouts, leading Jane to answers about her murder. But Cory has his own agenda about how to deal with the killer. In the end, the pair must decide if justice will prevail or the law.
With the writing for this film, there are several cool things going on. First, the writer Taylor Sheridan who is also the director has managed to incorporate the elements of the modern Western into this thriller. Even the opening scene builds those elements, letting us know that this is a rough world when Cory shoots a wolf stalking sheep. This allows the film to explore concepts of justice, integrates the environment into the story, and gives voice to the complexity of life on the reservation. The dialogue even remarks on how little help the reservation gets from the government when Ben’s character says, “We’re used to no help.” In the meantime, the thriller aspect moves the story at a quicker pace and focuses on the characters more intimately, granting the viewer the opportunity to understand that loss is the heart of the narrative.
Not only is the writing layering different genres, but it is also complex, gritty, and detailed. When I was viewing this movie, I felt immersed in the environment, like I really was in the mountains of Wyoming. Part of why is how expertly the scenery is built. The characters wear clothing matching the terrain. Cory moves through the snow prepared with snowshoes and a snowmobile. When Cory is showing his son how to ride a horse, the horse is wearing only a bridle, not a bit, in accordance with how the Arapaho tribe would train with their horses. Given that his ex-wife is Arapaho and he’s shown as respectful of the culture, this was an exquisite level of detail, not only about the environment but the character as well.
Not only is the writing detailed in its depiction of the environment but it is respectful of the culture of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes that live on the reservation. There is nothing syrupy about this view of life on the reservation. The youth are shown struggling with drug addiction and hopelessness which is a common problem. Even the older adults are shown dealing with how to help their children cope when they themselves struggle. But there is also humor and survival shown, individuals who keep fighting the difficulties they face. The people are shown as complex, three dimensional characters that are realistic and truthful to their way of life.
The acting is equal to the complexity of the writing. Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as a tough, expert tracker. He declares himself a hunter and you believe it as he stalks both the animals he oversees as a Wildlife Ranger and the murderer of Natalie. But even here, there is more to his performance than just a hunter. He shows such depth of loss when speaking of his daughter, such grief that it’s impossible not to believe him as the character. Elizabeth Olsen was a completely different person than the last movie I watched her in. She was so consumed by her character that I had to remind myself of who the actress was playing Jane Banner. Her mannerisms were direct and blunt, yet confronted by the family’s loss of their daughter, you can see the pain in her eyes, the desire to help. Gil Birmingham gives an understated yet emotional performance as Martin. There is a moment when he sees Cory that his shoulders just fall and pain enters his eyes when just moments before he was stoic that is just a beautiful and elegant look at true grief. Graham Greene is excellent as Ben, with subtle touches of humor like when he says, “Only in Wyoming, go fifty miles to go five.” referring to the circuitous route they must take to head to one of the sites that has clues to the murder. Every actor gives a layered and nuanced performance.
The mystery of what happened to Natalie is a bit simplistic, the story driven far more by the characters than the plot. While the film explores the loss of the young woman incredibly well, I could predict who had murdered her with ease. What pulls you forward through the film is the question of what will happen to her killers and the complexity of the life on the reservation as well as the narratives of the characters. Given that this is based on true events, I have to wonder if the actual event was as straightforward a mystery as the film. But given how good the acting and the other elements of the movie are, I can forgive the mystery being easy to solve.
The characters come across as real people. The details of the setting are perfect, to the point that the person next to me, a Wyoming native, was impressed and felt like he’d been brought back to his home. The writing is respectful of the culture and the exploration of loss and grief profoundly touching. If you like complex crime dramas with a western setting, you will love this film. I know I couldn’t get enough.
WIND RIVER is a chilling thriller that follows a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who teams up with a local game tracker with deep community ties and a haunted past (Jeremy Renner) to investigate the murder of a local girl on a remote Native American Reservation in the hopes of solving her mysterious death.
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, and James Jordan.
Written and directed by: Taylor Sheridan