Film Review: Wind River

Game tracker and rookie FBI agent search the mountains of Wyoming for the killer of a Native American student. Slow, derivative, exploitive thriller.
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Somber and slow-paced, Wind River muddies a basic suspense plot with pretense and mannerisms. Taylor Sheridan won over highbrow critics for his Sicario and Hell or High Water screenplays, genre retreads with unmet ambitions. Here he directs his own script, indulging in artsy flourishes for what turns out to be a standard crime procedural.

The moodiness starts with a score by miserablist fave Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Adding Native American chants to gloomy piano and violin duets, the music sets this firmly in "serious" territory. The movie opens with the death of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille Chow), whose lungs have burst after she was chased six miles in subzero temperatures.

Her corpse is discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a tracker for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. A laconic crack shot who dispenses pithy little epigrams about pain and loss, Cory's also a grieving divorcé and superdad whose own daughter died in a similar fashion.

Because Natalie's death occurred on the Wind River Indian Reservation, rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent from Las Vegas to assist local Bureau of Indian Affairs cop Ben (the effortlessly commanding Graham Greene). Over her head in a wintry wilderness, she asks Cory to help her solve the case.

Clues lead to a decrepit trailer filled with druggies, Sheridan adding bogus subjective POV shots to pump up the ensuing shootout. The violence in Wind River is cruel and gratuitous; later in the movie, Sheridan details a pointlessly sadistic rape and beating. Life is harsh, wolves eat sheep, whites are predominately villains, and as Sheridan tells it, Native Americans are too cowed to do anything about it.

A few moments in Wild River have the feel of a crisp cop show. Jane throws her weight around in a fight with the medical examiner and at one point stands up well to a bunch of armed bullies. But, frankly, she's only there to make Cory look good.

Sporting an outsized cowboy hat and a tortured grimace, Renner fails to convince either as hunter or hero. Things come too easy for him, whether it's taming a horse for his son, tracking down a den of mountain lions or riding a snowmobile straight up a mountain.

In his previous scripts, Sheridan has tended to spell things out bluntly for viewers. Cory has advice for everyone he encounters—the suicidal father, the drug addict who should go back to school—whether they want to hear it or not. Ditto viewers.

But what's especially galling about Wind River is Sheridan's insistence that his threadbare clues, lame gunplay and senseless deaths are somehow providing a service. A closing credit worries about how Native American women are victims of abuse. Showing such abuse in graphic detail is the kind of cynical ploy found in B-movie revenge thrillers. No matter how hard Sheridan tries to dress up Wind River, it remains cheap, ugly exploitation.

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