Review: Intense and thoughtful thriller 'Wind River' will chill you to the bone

Review: Intense and thoughtful thriller 'Wind River' will chill you to the boneEntertainment

Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are out to hunt down a killer in the thriller ‘Wind River,’ written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. The Weinstein Company

A chilly air of isolation and desperation pervades the thriller Wind River, Taylor Sheridan’s new directorial effort that proves he’s more than an exceptional writer.

The thoughtful and intense follow-up (***½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands nationwide Aug. 18) to his neo-Western screenplay Hell or High Water again puts a spotlight on people just trying to survive. Instead of Texas bank robbers — or the government agents fighting the border war in Sheridan’s Sicario script — Wind River looks at those in and around the snowy landscape of the Wyoming Indian reservation that gives the film its name.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker, throws himself into his job, which includes hunting beasts preying on livestock. When we meet him, his marriage to his Native American wife (Julia Jones) has fallen apart and he’s lamenting the loss of his teen daughter three years prior.

He’s called to look into a predatory animal on the reservation, and when Cory goes traipsing through the snow, he finds the body of a teenage girl (Kelsey Asbille) who’s been raped and murdered. He identifies her as Natalie, the daughter of his friend Martin (Gil Birmingham), and it brings up the pain of the unsolved case of his own daughter’s death.

Because the incident happened on the reservation, the FBI sends in the closest agent, Las Vegas rookie Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), and she employs Cory’s skill set to help her find the perpetrator.

Sheridan presents a gripping picture from the start of his murder mystery — it opens with a shot of Natalie running for her life barefoot in the cold dead of night paralleled with a snarling wolf pack eyeing sheep. The director beautifully captures the majesty of the area while at the same time digging up its human underbelly, and Sheridan crafts a well-paced affair as well, though the inevitable here’s-what-happened flashback is jarring when it comes.

Renner, in one of his best roles, lends a weathered depth to Cory but also surprising intelligence to the character deemed “Sherlock Snow.” A career of wildlife work has made him a detective savant (“You don’t catch killers where they’ll be, you catch them where they’ve been,” he says), though it’s his scenes with Birmingham, two fathers wordlessly sharing the grief of their losses, that stand out most.

Sheridan has put together a talented Native American cast, including the venerable Graham Greene as a tribal sheriff. And without being overly heavy-handed, he makes the plight of those living reservation life felt by his viewers, from the real-world horrors of missing women to drug addiction and the feeling of being trapped in their own lives. “That snow and silence, that’s the only thing that hasn’t been taken from them,” Cory tells Jane.

But Sheridan makes it clear that all of his characters, native or otherwise, are struggling through something. Wind River, especially in the way Cory and Martin embrace, speaks to how the filmmaker is redefining the American Western: Cowboys vs. Indians used to be the conflict, yet in this film, true justice is found when both work together.

A sentimental belief, sure, but one that’s entrenched in this cool and engrossing tale.

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