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Wind River

By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published August 18, 2017 at 1:50 a.m.


Hugh Dillon, Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene star in Wind River

Wind River


Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Asbille, Teo Briones, Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene, Martin Sensmeier, Apesanahkwat

Director: Taylor Sheridan

Rating: R, for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images and language

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham star in Wind River.

The last few years have been a hell of a ride for Taylor Sheridan, since he got his first screenplay, Sicario, made into a gripping, Oscar-nominated film in 2015. Last summer's Hell or High Water, another of his scripts, was one of the unexpectedly satisfying hits of the season, which only added to his ascendancy.

His style apes classic Hollywood '70s iconography -- twisty political dramas in which naivety leads to brutal reality lessons, action dramas that emphasize the latter for their thrills. As a former actor himself, he also has a way of creating compelling roles for others, giving them a shimmering showcase for their talent. This film, an evocative thriller procedural he wrote and for the first time, directed, is very much in keeping with the winning brand he has already established for himself. It might not get as much Oscar attention as his previous films, but it will still add to his luster.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a professional hunter for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, out in the frigid back country of Wyoming to protect livestock threatened by predators. When he discovers the body of a young woman (Kelsey Asbille) out in the frozen wilderness, however, it sparks a homicide investigation, bringing in Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a callow young FBI agent, to try and solve the murder.

Soon, things get even more muddied when a second body is found high up in the mountains, a private contractor who had been working on a nearby oil rig. Digging deeper into the case, Banner -- an agent based out of Las Vegas, so ill-versed at dealing with cold weather mechanics she first shows up in pumps and a light parka -- begins to learn how to assert her authority, under the tutelage of the world-weary Lambert, a man whose meticulousness leads him to craft his own bullets, but whose considerable damage from a tragic past leaves him with his own demons to face.

Sheridan has a way of taking these sorts of stock tropes -- exotic murder mysteries have long been a siren song for Hollywood, to say nothing of neophyte law enforcement agents having to learn on the fly from craggy veterans with dark pasts -- and adding enough depth and detail to give them a kind of fresh vibrancy. He accomplishes this in several ways, first by burrowing deep down into the lives of his characters, giving a good deal of attention to their history, and, like an actor, concentrating on their physical details to give them a pulpy hook.

Not content with a basic thriller, Sheridan adds welcome layers of complexity to the proceedings, including the dicey logistics concerning the laws of jurisdiction on American Indian lands -- the weary reservation sheriff (Graham Greene) tells Jane at one point the "rez" isn't the place where you call for backup, it's a place where you have to go it alone -- and the inherent difficulty of living in such a blindingly cold and inhospitable environment.

Here, he also brings in the plight of modern tribes, forced to live on lands dangerously understaffed and underfunded that have virtually no financial infrastructure. Indian women vanish with alarming regularity, and they largely do so without any record of their disappearance. According to its title card, Sheridan based the film on real events, which casts a further pall over the proceedings. Despite his busy agenda, he avoids strident polemics for the most part, however, encasing his larger political points within a tightly wound and engrossing narrative.

Sheridan has talked about very much wanting to create an authentic document to honor this part of the country and the tribes who dwell there. Having spent a lot of time there himself, he wanted to capture what it was he found so fascinating and stirring in such a forlorn place. This much, I believe he has managed to accomplish. As inhospitable as the land may seem, it still carries a deep kind of spirituality, a connectedness to all the creatures that manage to survive there. In the desolate plains, the circle of life is as unyielding as the pitiless snow and frozen rock that make up most of the landscape.

Politically, of course, he can certainly still be taken to task: After this and Sicario, which saw the rough education of yet another inexperienced female law agent by a brooding, masterful male figure, he might want to lay off that particular dynamic going forward.

There can also be interpreted the age-old Heroic White Man in Native Lands bit, although it appears Sheridan makes an effort to differentiate his White Man by virtue of his respectful humility toward the community around him. In a scene late in the film, Cory, in his Stetson, sits in the snow and mourns with the father (the Menominee actor Apesanahkwat) of the murdered girl, his countenance painted in a "death face," (no longer sure of the proper procedure, he makes it up on the fly), in a poignant tribute to modern day cowboys and Indians. The enemy is still very much at large, but it isn't either of those bedraggled, miserable men.

These are more than legitimate gripes, but what Sheridan still does exceptionally well is to infuse the film with a strong sense of place, rooting even the most fantastical action sequences against a backdrop of oppressive realism, which is hauntingly effective. In his depiction of the frozen upper plains, the only small vestiges of color in the oppressive white landscape come from the people scurrying around his otherwise opaque frames, tiny dots frantically darting to and fro over the landscape. At one point, a character disparagingly describes the area as "snow and silence," and Sheridan seems to embrace both in equal measure.

MovieStyle on 08/18/2017

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LRLittleDipper says... August 18, 2017 at 1:36 p.m.

Actually, the actor in the final scene in war paint is Gil Birmingham, who played the side-kick to Jeff Bridges' character in "Hell or High Water". Fine job by leads and supporting actors, and the score was haunting. Great film. Go see it while it's showing here!

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