A harsh, wintry beauty pervades “Wind River,” Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut. In this sturdily effective thriller, Jeremy Renner plays Cory, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker whose job is to dispatch the wolves and mountain lions that kill livestock on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. As an outdoorsman well versed in tracking, observing and knowing precisely which shot to take, Cory puts his skills to unexpected use when he finds the body of an 18-year-old native girl (Kelsey Asbille) frozen on an isolated snowfield.
Because the circumstances are suspicious, the tribal police chief (played deadpan and flawlessly by Graham Greene) calls the FBI, which sends a rookie agent named Jane (Elisabeth Olsen). She quickly discovers that she’s out of her depth in a community steeped in mistrust of the government, tough self-reliance, grinding poverty and cruelly foreshortened prospects.
Sheridan, who spent time living on an Indian reservation to research the screenplay, doesn’t play up the exoticism and despair of reservation life, but he makes his point clear in an early shot of an upside-down American flag at the entrance to Wind River: Things aren’t right here, and they haven’t been for a long time.
“Wind River” engages social issues through the lens of conventional suspense-driven genre. The film occasionally shows its schematic gear works, especially during the final third, when a tense showdown, a gruesome flashback and a climactic act of revenge turn the movie from a subtle, character-driven procedural into borderline exploitative pulp.
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By then, it’s clear that “Wind River” will conclude not with twisty complexity but with blunt, overstated simplicity. Sheridan has approached the setting with the sensitivity and respect of his empathic protagonist, but the film bears a whiff of cultural tourism.
In addition to Ben Richardson’s striking cinematography and a whispery musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, “Wind River” is graced with fine performances from Greene, Gil Birmingham as a grieving father, and Renner, who slips into Cory’s reluctant heroism as if donning a favorite camo parka. As Cory, he brings to life the kind of super-competent, accidental crime-solver one could imagine anchoring a detective series that’s less hard-boiled than steeped in aching, unresolved loss. Renner’s tears never feel false, whether they spring from palpable grief or the stinging cold of the Wyoming back country.
Rated R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images and obscenity. 1:47. Kentucky.