My favorite movies these days are the unexpected ones—under-the-radar gems that still offer a sense of discovery. It’s rare these days when movies feel marketed to death. I knew nothing of “Wind River” before seeing it, other than it starred two well-established talented actors: Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. After a summer of blockbusters blasting into my periphery, it was kind of nice to walk up to the ticket counter with no concrete idea of what I was going to see. Fortunately, “Wind River” was a great surprise.
“Wind River” reminded me of a couple of movies I greatly enjoy: Christopher Nolan’s wonderfully tense nail-biter “Insomnia” (2002) and the fantastic procedural thriller, “Thunderheart” (1992), starring Val Kilmer. “Wind River” could easily be a great pairing for a double feature with either.
The film is set in the perpetual snowdrift of rural Wyoming. Cory (Jeremy Renner) is a game tracker who has spent his entire life in the mountains. He’s a gifted hunter familiar with the threats that populate this region, both animal and human.
His existence has been troubled in recent years. Personal tragedy has ruined his marriage. His relationship with his son is the only thing keeping him connected to this world. While riding through the massive Wind River Reservation, he discovers the body of a young woman. The evidence suggests foul play, which prompts FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to start an investigation. It’s a complicated situation. The Wind River Reservation houses a Native-American population with their own sets of rules and laws. It’s also full of an extremely disenfranchised population of drug addicts and alcoholics, as well as a woefully understaffed Sheriff’s department, which tries to police a massive patch of land with only six officers.
Jane is a little overwhelmed with all the shifting variables of investigating a case on a reservation. She needs someone who knows the area and the population, so she asks Cory to help her look into the murder. Cory has some personal connections to the murder victim, which fuels his involvement in the case. Together they begin to unravel a very complicated narrative, which leads to more dead bodies and a dark element lurking deep within the Wind River Reservation.
The story of “Wind River” is a fairly simple one. It’s not a great mystery or a classic whodunit. In fact, everything is eventually revealed in a matter-of-fact way, which fulfills many audience questions but not organically. In fact, the law enforcement characters in “Wind River” all suffer from a layer of naiveté solely for the purpose of allowing the mystery to not be resolved too quickly. The movie is carried by Jeremy Renner’s hellaciously intense performance. There’s a quiet brooding quality to Renner far more genuine than so many of his contemporaries. His fiery gaze is only matched by Tom Hardy, who can equally convey rage, suffering and tragedy with little more than a glance.
Writer/director Taylor Sheridan does a great job of creating an atmospheric frigid wasteland for our characters to inhabit. Much like his scripts for “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario,” the palpable tone is of consistent dread. The snow-covered mountains of Wyoming and grey skies above them feel like a hellish landscape, as Cody traverses the area to try and discover the truth.
If I have one complaint about the movie, it’s that the resolution feels far more convenient and one-dimensional than the characters investigating the crimes. Our villains are cookie-cutter scumbags audiences are happy to see brutally brought to justice.
Yet, even that complaint is minuscule in relation to the overall quality of the finished film. “Wind River” is an excellent thriller, with a strong central performance from Jeremy Renner and an intriguing small-town murder scenario that yields some exceptional dramatic results. A great little discovery that—much like 2016’s “Hell or High Water”—feels taut and could end up with a lot of award-season love at year’s end.