Wind River: Life and death in the cold

Taylor Sheridan can write the tail off a script.

The creative mind behind probing, emotional thrillers like “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” takes to the director’s chair for the first time with “Wind River,” his third feature film script and perhaps the most stoic, reserved entry in his filmography.

Set in the harsh cold of the Wind River Indian Reservation in rural Wyoming, Sheridan’s thriller takes on the best and worst of its environment with a tense, bone-chilling crime drama that also suffers from a glacially slow opening act, a rare imperfection in an otherwise outstanding film.

Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner stars as Cory Lambert, a Wildlife and Fisheries Department tracker who stumbles across the frozen corpse of a missing Native American girl miles from home in the snow. When FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called into investigate, the duo begin hunting for the truth about her death.

While Renner will probably be more closely attached to his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” there simply isn’t a better performance from this talented character actor than his Cory in “Wind River.” Renner perfectly captures the inner conflict of Cory’s soul both verbally and non-verbally in every moment of “Wind River.”

Viewers can feel the pain in Cory’s eyes desperately fighting and clawing to get out while he devastatingly forces his emotions down. Every look, every word from Renner is cold, calculated, precise in a turn that marks a new height in Renner’s illustrious career.

Olsen delivers a solid, unspectacular performance as Jane, the head-strong, but over her head FBI agent trying to bring justice to a situation where little justice is ever served. Gil Birmingham, who was a revelation as Jeff Bridges’ partner in “Hell or High Water,” is equally phenomenal in “Wind River” as the young woman’s grief-stricken father, permanently scarred by his daughter’s death.

“Wind River” is a film that’s admittedly rough around the edges, intentionally as rugged and worn as Renner’s Cory appears on screen. It’s a movie that openly envisions what might happen if Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name had become stricken with grief, what emotional sobs in silence look like both visually and internally.

As such a cold movie, “Wind River” struggles to draw viewers in during its first quarter, keeping a stoic, somber distance from its audience while Sheridan builds the plot in linear, crime procedural fashion. When the tone flips on its head later in the film, “Wind River” becomes something else entirely: a vivid, gripping peek into life on the fringes.

Sheridan’s biggest strength as a director comes from how intricately he knows the script, which he shot after a single draft. “Wind River” circles its plot like a lion slowly trapping its unwitting prey, until all of a sudden, it’s right on top of you.

Because he feels at ease in the film’s quieter, dialogue-heavy moments, Sheridan allows himself the freedom to take bigger chances in the narrative’s action sequences.

Several times in “Wind River,” Sheridan places the camera as the viewpoint of one of the characters, allowing audiences to experience heightened anxiety. Putting viewers in Jane’s shoes as she sweeps a crime scene with gun drawn, for example, is one of the film’s most engaging, visually stimulating moments.

The film’s independent status makes “Wind River” a long shot for any awards consideration, though Renner’s performance and Sheridan’s script are both certainly worthy of acclaim this fall. Backing from The Weinstein Company, a notoriously heavy spending in award campaigns, should bevy its chances of being this year’s “Hell or High Water,” a film that earns several key nominations but fails to win in any category.

Led by stellar performances from Renner and Olsen as well as another terrific Sheridan screenplay, “Wind River” is the year’s first true quality dramatic thriller to hit the big screen.

In a summer dearth of heavier, gripping films, this Sundance favorite is worth making a trip to catch in theaters.

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