“You’d think folks would realize this is sheep country,” a man chortles in the opening scenes of “Wind River,” minutes after an introductory scene in which a local man named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) obliterates a pack of wolves with his sniper rifle. It’s a long while before the implication of this throwaway line becomes clear, although anyone who’s seen Taylor Sheridan’s tersely didactic “Hell or High Water” should already know that the emerging scribe — here directing one of his own scripts for the first time — doesn’t really do throwaway lines.
Sheridan tells stories the way a predator hunts, looping around an idea in ever-tighter circles until he’s standing on top of its carcass. His movies take place in vast spaces that leave precious room for interpretation; they are written within an inch of their lives, every word carefully selected in order to surround a theme that might as well be spelled out in skywriting across the stratosphere above the American Midwest.
So nearly two hours later, after a frigid grief drama has given way to a murder-mystery (that has in turn evolved into a violent meditation on survival), odds are good that you’ll still have that line on the tip of your tongue: “You’d think folks would realize this is sheep country.” When you hear it, the dialogue suggests that the snowbound Wind River Indian Reservation is a place for people who keep to themselves and don’t want any trouble. When you remember it, those words have taken on a feral new tenor. This, the man was saying, is a place where the weak are eaten alive.
And boy was he right. A gripping and agreeably self-serious noir by a guy who will either become the next Cormac McCarthy or freeze himself to death trying, “Wind River” is set in the inescapable tundra of central Wyoming, where (quoth another minor character), “snow and silence are the only things that haven’t been taken” from the residents. It’s a place defined by poverty, simmering racial tensions, and the merciless choke of the wild. It’s a place where only six police officers are available to cover an area the size of Rhode Island.
Fortunately, the cops have some help in Lambert, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife employee whose job is to kill anything he tracks down that has four legs and big teeth. But when Lambert comes across the frozen body of a familiar teenage girl, raped before being drowned from the blood in her lungs, it’s clear that some additional backup might be required.
Enter FBI agent Jane Banner (a spirited Elizabeth Olsen), who’s on loan from Las Vegas and way beneath her normal operating temperature. A rookie who’s tougher than she looks, Banner is nothing if not a familiar trope, but she’s eventually afforded some purpose beyond that of providing our taciturn hero with a sharp foil and a potential sex partner. She’s a rare female presence in a purgatory that a group of primitive men have claimed as their own, and a walking reminder of the violence that awaits anyone who dares to be a part of it. “Wind River” may start as a whodunnit (imagine a very special episode of one of those Scandinavian detective shows you find on Netflix), but Banner helps it thaw into a sordid revenge saga highlighted by some insane sniper action and one of the finest Mexican standoffs the movies have ever seen.
Without her, the natural flair with which Renner rocks a cowboy hat might be the only thing distracting viewers from how conspicuously Lambert’s young son disappears from a movie that makes him central to its first act, or how frequently Sheridan restates his themes without doing anything to deepen them. While less didactic than “Hell or High Water” and its eye-rolling dissertations about the economy, “Wind River” has a nasty habit of using the misfortunes of others in order to make itself seem bigger. For example, the film is eager to indicate the simmering racial tensions between Wyoming’s white and native populations, but without meaningful engagement it adds little nuance to the movie — and a lot of questions about why Lambert is its main character.
But if “Wind River” shares Sheridan’s self-evident weaknesses, it also makes the most of his signature strengths. His penchant for rugged elementalism has never been put to such evocative effect, and the witty terseness he’s used to define his wise-cracking characters (think of Josh Brolin in “Sicario”) is transmuted into a parade of epic compositions that consistently teeter on the line between funny and fucked up.
Sheridan either feels these uniquely American environments in his bones or he fakes it with incredible confidence. He suffuses a macho Western soul into every story he tells like someone is standing over his shoulder and measuring his manhood, but he finds a way to make it feel like the fate of the world depends on every existential inch. Here, he does it while making the first movie in cinema history that actually makes snowmobiling look badass. “Wind River” may not blow you away, but this bitter, visceral, and almost parodically intense thriller knows what it takes to survive.
“Wind River” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.