WIND RIVER review by Rahul Vedantam – Jeremy Renner & Elizabeth Olsen lead a scenic thriller

WIND RIVER review by Rahul Vedantam – Jeremy Renner & Elizabeth Olsen lead a scenic thriller

It will surprise no one that WIND RIVER shares its writer-director with the writer of last’s years HELL OR HIGH WATER. Taylor Sheridan clearly has a style. Both films star a divorced, stoic cowboy whose primary motivation for living is his kids. Both use contemporary Native American culture as a central theme for the movie, asserting that they are the true cowboys of today. Finally, both are very good. While WIND RIVER falls on cliche enough to stop it from reaching HELL OF HIGH WATER levels of success, it is still a beautiful production with a story to tell.

Taylor Sheridan really likes showing off the American West; this time instead of the sweeping deserts of Texas we have the snow-packed mountains of a Wyoming Indian reservation. Not long into admiring the landscapes and following hired help hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) on his work, we find the body of a Native American teenager half-frozen and bloody in the snow. The FBI sends its closest agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) and she must solve the murder with help only from the local police and Cory’s tracking skills. As they track the case we slowly unravel what life is like for the people of the Wind River Reservation, and the tragic backstory of Cory Lambert himself that drives him to help solve the murder.

Sheridan biggest accomplishment in the film is communicating the tragedy of a parent losing a child. Both Renner and Gil Birmingham sit in deadly silence in scenes, marinating in the pain of loss as to not numb themselves and “lose all the good moments as well.” Gil Birmingham deserves accolades for his minor role as the father to the murdered girl, truly breaking hearts when he asks for the courtesy to “sit here and miss her for a minute.” The film has essentially 3 types of scenes: heartbreaking emotion, tension-building scans of the beautiful Wyoming wilderness, and heart-pounding action. All three are effective in what they are trying to accomplish, the action even more so because it is used so sparingly. Both of our main characters are never felt to be safe, and that allows for more tension than anything that could be done onscreen. Throw in some fantastic editing with some great bait-n-switch cuts, and you end up with an amazing mystery thriller.

It’s not a perfect movie however. WIND RIVER has a habit of slowly unraveling and having the audience figure out a complex story, only to then sit us down and explain it all outright. This is effective in the murder of Natalie, getting a full flashback cements the tragedy of her death and the monstrosity of her killers. It is less effective when we are learning about the death of Cory’s daughter, who after being very stoic and resistant to talking about his daughter suddenly exposits everything he knows in one scene to Jane. After this scene, much or the film ends up being fairly predictable, as thestory stops unraveling and lets what it has play out. Chris Pine was originally meant for the role, and while Renner does by no means a bad job, I can’t help but feel he would have been better for the part. Renner is fine as a cowboy, but he carries that to such an extreme that the emotional scenes become less powerful. Elizabeth Olsen is okay too, though her character is more of an audience surrogate, so she doesn’t have much to do other than sell the action, which she does well. A lesser film would have forced a romance between the two characters, and I am very happy to say that is absent here.

Sheridan has been able to capture the loneliness of man in a way that hasn’t been seen from a writer/director since NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. He talks of the futility of luck, the disgraceful way the Native American people have been and are still being treated, and the anxiety of parenthood. But unlike The Coen brothers he adds an element of hope to WIND RIVER, in saying that there is still something to live for if we can stick together. And that gives you something with which to sit and think.

WIND RIVER opens August 11, 2017

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