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Wind River is an intense and painful thriller set on a Native American reservation

The film, from the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, sees Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen hunt a murderer.

Jeremy Renner in Wind River
Jeremy Renner in Wind River
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Taylor Sheridan is one of Hollywood’s buzziest screenwriters, with a reputation for serious, violent dramas set in America’s overlooked places: on the US–Mexico border in Sicario, and in recession-plagued West Texas in Hell or High Water, for which he received an Oscar nomination.

The two films feel like companion pieces: Both focus on those who enforce the law and those who try to circumvent it. And both show a keen understanding of the complexities that local law enforcement officers must navigate when federal matters — like drug trafficking and the mortgage crisis — are involved. A sense of justice matters more than strictly legal notions of what’s “right” and “wrong,” as does the status of the person exacting the justice: Are they a local with a deep sense of the place they’re in? Or are they not from around here?

Wind River moves these questions north, to a tiny town a few hours from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, near a Native American reservation. A local game hunter named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is working as a US Fish and Wildlife officer and tracking a lion that has been spotted on the reservation; in the process, he runs across the body of a dead young woman (Kelsey Asbille), barefoot in the snow and showing signs of both beating and brutal rape. But she’s miles from any structure, and Lambert has no idea how she got there.

He calls his friend Ben (Graham Greene), a member of the Tribal Police, to help investigate — and because it’s a murder, the FBI sends an agent, too: Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who travels from Las Vegas because she’s the closest free agent.

Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene in Wind River
Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene in Wind River.

Ben, Jane, and Cory investigate the murder, and the story unknots itself slowly and a bit painfully. Everyone has some deep trauma in their lives. Cory is white, but his ex-wife is Native American and he feels most comfortable on the reservation, with people he’s known his whole life — including the young woman’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham), whose grief at the loss of his daughter is immense. The line between Jane and the locals, though, is hard to miss. And everyone has something to learn.

Wind River is an admirable, beautifully shot thriller

A feeling of deep despair suffuses everyone in the film, all of whom feel abandoned in this remote, forsaken corner of the country, from the young Native American men who’ve turned to drugs to the grizzled, angry white men working and drinking themselves to death nearby. People talk about leaving, but they don’t really seem to follow through.

There is much to admire in Sheridan’s filmmaking, both in his writing and in his direction. His landscapes are starkly beautiful, his actors (especially Renner) seem comfortable and confident in their roles, and his stories are continually surprising and sometimes truly shocking. He writes characters whose attachments to one another and motivations for what they do are deeply emotional — not always a given in thrillers — and give the audience plenty of room to feel empathy, even for those who are clearly in the wrong.

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in Wind River
Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in Wind River.

But the film verges on capitalizing too much on its characters’ suffering

That said, as with the previous two films in this de facto Sheridan trilogy, there’s something a bit off-putting about Wind River. The score is distracting — at one point employing a male vocalist during a scene that would have been better served with the starkness of silence — but you can get used to it after a while.

But the larger issue is that the trauma endured by the characters is so unrelenting, so utterly bleak, that it risks becoming a caricature of pain. Unlike Hell or High Water, which had its moments of gallows humor, Wind River is deadly serious at all times, with no space for any human connection other than the saddest kind. And while there’s no reason to crack a lot of jokes to lighten the mood, it can start to feel like the movie relies too heavily on despair, to the point of capitalizing on its characters’ suffering — and, given the realism of Sheridan’s films, the suffering of people like them.

That’s a bit jarring in Wind River, a film with many Native American characters (and thus the rare Hollywood movie with many roles for Native American actors). As I watched, I tried to remember if I’d ever seen a mainstream film set on a reservation that didn’t have white people as protagonists and didn’t focus sharply on rampant drug use or trafficking.

I still haven’t thought of one. That’s not Sheridan’s fault, and it wouldn’t be fair to ding him for an industry-wide issue. But in this case, it’s of a piece with Wind River as a whole, as well as symptomatic of a larger issue in Hollywood.

Still, as a film and as a story, Wind River is a good movie, and very nearly an excellent one. And Sheridan’s interest in the places America tries to forget — and how local identity and alliances affect the rule of law in those places — makes him a vital filmmaker for America right now.

Wind River opens in theaters on August 4.

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