There’s a harsh, stark poetry to Wind River. The third in a loose trilogy of films dealing with the modern American frontier (the first was Sicario, the second Hell or High Water), Taylor Sheridan’s film is ostensibly a murder mystery set in the white wastes of Wyoming. What it actually is, though, is a modern Western, one which pits its skeletal civilisation against a wilderness of snow and silence.
We open on a young Native American woman running terrified through the snow before collapsing and breathing her last. Her body, barefoot and frostbitten, is discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Fish and Wildlife Service agent. Foul play is suspected, and the FBI are called in. Enter Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), woefully unprepared for the freezing conditions and in need of all the help she can get. And so she enlists Lambert in her search for whatever, or whoever, caused the young woman to run six miles barefoot through the snow.
It’s a real shame that Hollywood isn’t the prolific producer of Westerns that it once was, because if it were, Renner could easily have a career as a cowboy superstar. Lambert is the archetypal wilderness tracker, laconic and stoney faced with a preternatural competency and only the barest hint of an inner emotional life. The frosty plains are a land which does not look kindly upon distracting emotions, and Lambert has learned to keep his deep down where they can’t get in his way.
Olsen, meanwhile, is still best known for Marvel’s Scarlet Witch, so it’s gratifying to see her branching out into meatier roles. Banner is spunky and determined but (perhaps lethally) out of place in Wyoming. She hails from sunny Florida, was stationed in arid Vegas, and is painfully ill-equipped for frosty Wind River.
Banner and Lambert are assisted by the Tribal Police, because Wind River is an Indian Reservation. Sheridan (who writes and directs – he merely wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, making this his directorial debut) folds the marginalisation of the Native Americans into the investigation. The sense of a way of life slipping away is tangible in Wind River; one Arapaho character remarks that he had to make up the details of a ritual because there’s no one left to teach it. In fact, everyone in Wind River is fighting a losing battle against the harsh reality of life on the frozen plains. Lambert, who has his own inner struggle, says that he decided to fight his feelings rather than fight the world, because the world would win. Wind River is a film in which the world has already won; these characters are just eking out what existence they can before the final bell is rung.
As you might expect, then, Wind River is suffused with with a pervasive melancholy. (There is humour, most notably from Graham Greene’s Tribal sheriff, but it comes in short, discrete bursts, as if the characters know that the chilly wilderness won’t tolerate it.) The sombre tone is underscored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ music, which lends Wind River its harsh and stark poetry. It’s a poetry grounded in location; vast snowy vistas in which human civilisation looks transient and insignificant.
The investigation is in danger of getting lost amongst all of this, but that’s kind of the point. There are scant few clues for Lambert and Banner to follow. Instead, their obstacles are the wilderness, the vast distances (the reservation is apparently the size of Rhode Island, with only six officers to patrol it), and the insular nature of the communities. Banner is an outright outsider, and Lambert, while having married into a Arapaho family, is still not quite one of them. No one is willing to talk, some with good reason, others with not so good reasons.
The investigation does come to an end, and when it does, Wind River plunges into an extended, double-barrelled climax that is, by turns, brutally violent and poetically just. The violence isn’t gory, but has a visceral impact that is shocking in an otherwise measured, even glacial film. And there is a sequence of frontier justice that would bring a sardonic smile to the Man with No Name’s face.
It’s closure, of a sort. It is that sense, of characters finding conclusions that aren’t quite what they wanted, that ties Sicario, Hell or High Water, and now Wind River most closely. Wind River isn’t quite as good as Hell or High Water, the best of this trilogy, but it is a brutally beautiful and majestically melancholy portrait of a harsh and unforgiving world that is quietly slipping away.