Death in Wyoming: "Wind River"
The movie Wind River takes a look at a troubling side of American justice. Jeremy Renner stars as Cory Lambert, a fish and wildlife agent in Wyoming who finds the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), a Native American teen, while on his rounds. He reports the discovery to the reservation police chief, Ben (Graham Greene). Since the young woman seems to have been sexually attacked before she died, Ben decides to involve the FBI. The Bureau sends Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) from their nearest location in Las Vegas. The autopsy results, however, show that Natalie died from exposure in subzero cold, and not from her rape. That means Banner cannot ask for Bureau assistance. She does get an assist from Cory, though, who realizes that Banner did not come prepared for the cold. He also keeps Natalie's despondent father Martin (Gil Birmingham) assessed of further developments. Cory, too, lost his daughter with Native American blood in a similar fashion.
Banner's investigation takes her to the reservation drug dealers, including Martin's son Chip (Martin Sensmeier). After a confrontation, Chip tells the authorities his sister had become involved with Matt Rayburn (Jon Bernthal), a private security guard working at an oil drilling site. The problem Banner faces is that Matt has disappeared. She goes to the guards' trailer with Ben and some of his men to ask some questions about the night that Natalie died. Cory comes as well, but he does not join the Banner team during the questioning. They face trouble, as they quickly learn the guards are only going to cooperate so much. They make it clear that Banner is the only one who has the right to be on this private land - and they don't appreciate her presence.
In his previous writing efforts, Taylor Sheridan has shown a modern day wild west. In Sicario, task force agents skirt the edges of legality to stop a drug cartel. In Hell Or High Water, law enforcement tries to catch up to a pair of bank robbers who know police resources are limited in their remote part of Texas. In Wind River, Sheridan adds another chapter to this look at frontier justice, and takes the director's chair for this picture. The slow pace helps to build to the expected climax, where three different sides face off in a violent showdown. Cory is both witness and aide, but can only do so much, as Banner must discover most of the facts of her case for herself. Sheridan stays true to the sort of gritty reality of which he wrote in Sicario and Hell Or High Water. Characters are willing to stand their ground, even at the price of their lives. Sheridan also shows that while one case may close, others will create new conflicts. Sheridan, sadly, has based Wind River on actual events, and reveals in the end how little crimes against Native American women matter to those who keep statistics on such incidents for everybody else.
Renner does very good work as Lambert, a dedicated agent with a tough life. He's the divorced father of a young son who will one day be tempted to travel down the road of the Hanson siblings, finding escape from reservation life with probable dead-end opportunities. When Natalie's case becomes active, he has to leave the boy with Martin and his wife while Cory's ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones), travels for a job interview. His skill as a wildlife agent comes in handy whenever Jane needs it. Cory lives with a desperation of his own, but he never lets it interfere with his job or his life. Olsen also scores as Banner, an FBI agent in unfamiliar territory. On her arrival, Banner has to borrow warm clothes so she herself won't die as Natalie did. She's quick, though, to form a bond with Cory, as he understands the Wind River reservation better than she. Jane compensates for her inexperience with both determination and confidence. She moves forward with the case as she deals with the obstacles that slow the investigation. Greene adds sound support as Ben, a tribal police chief trying to keep the peace in a jurisdiction as large as Rhode Island. I also liked Birmingham as Martin, who has a hard time dealing with loss while helping Cory and his parental situation.
Wind River is an often somber drama that has underlying tones of violence. A skilled agent works with a largely unskilled agent to find out about the circumstances that led to the death of a teenage girl on reservation land. Several sides have a vested interest in the case - some for closure, and some to keep things hidden. Sheridan, as he showed in his previous two screenplays, provides no happy ending, but only a small measure of satisfaction. Life on the Wind River reservation is not likely to change for most who live there. Viewers are left to wish that the residents there find their way to some sort of productive and positive life.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Wind River 3.5 stars. A big chill on the reservation.