Taylor Sheridan isn’t afraid to embrace genre. His Wind River plays more like an unusually well-made episode of CSI: Wyoming than the highly anticipated directorial effort from the screenwriter of Hell or High Water (which may well have been last year’s best-written film).
Set in the desolate, snow-covered Wind River reservation, it follows the efforts of expert marksman and haunted tough guy Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and tenderfoot FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) as they investigate the death of a local teenage girl found frozen in the middle of nowhere. It’s a solid mystery setup: The girl, who may have been raped, appears to have been running away from something, and our heroes need to find out not just who’s responsible for her murder but what terrified her so.
Sheridan’s feel for psychology and setting are in fine evidence here. Wind River’s landscapes are forbidding and beautiful. Cory, whose ex-wife also lives on the reservation, once lost a teen daughter in similar circumstances, and he can empathize with the girl’s anguished, nearly suicidal parents. Because the film pays such attention to grief and atmosphere, I can forgive it some of its more frustratingly conventional plotting choices. Not to mention some of the casting: Renner feels out of place as the white-clad (and just plain white) Man’s Man Who Is One With Nature. For her part, Olsen does her best as Young Beautiful FBI Agent Out of Her League. And while it’s always nice to see the great Graham Greene, here playing the reservation’s sheriff, it would have been even nicer had the creators of this movie ostensibly about Native Americans allowed him room for a bigger role.
In Hell or High Water, Sheridan reimagined (and, along the way, reinvented) genre archetypes (the aging lawman, the outlaw on the run, the faithful partner, etc.) with such vigor that the movie became largely about them and their interactions, giving the whole thing a mythical kick. Here, the archetypes are largely functional in delivering a familiar thriller narrative — satisfying, though ultimately forgettable.