After scripting borderlands drug-war thriller Sicario and Texas highway-robbery neo-western, Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan heads north to Utah for his directorial debut Wind River, which should have been the winter sleeper hit of this summer. Sheridan’s penchant for action-packed autopsies of terse, glinting masculinity and rat-a-tat sharp dissections of socio-political problems pays off again. Perhaps most chillingly, this film hits home up here, too, in its icy stares at the seamy side of oil-rig culture and the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women.
Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is tracking a mountain lion up in the peaks of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation when he comes across 18-year-old Natalie Hanson, barefoot and frozen to death in a snow-blanketed meadow. FBI rookie Jane Banner (Mary Olsen) flies in; visibly moved by the sight of Natalie, she’s set on catching the rapist, or rapists, who caused her to go on one desperate, long run for her life.
She enlists Lambert, whose 16-year-old daughter—then friends with Natalie—was found dead of exposure just a few years ago. On this land, violent history has repeated itself yet again.
The Eastern Shosone here could easily be defined by suffering and loss, but never are. Sheridan not only icewater-buckets us into Natalie’s parents’ grief (in a stunning scene) but laps Lambert’s barely-ebbing sadness around our ankles. Natalie’s no simple victim; the still-green Banner’s no mere wanna-help interloper. But wariness and distrust shadow nearly every white and First Nation encounter here. The dialogue is terse, crackling like a fresh snow-crust underfoot. And the action scenes—beginning with door-knocks and stand-offs, including a sudden, sharp cut to an all-explaining flashback—make this far less a murder-mystery than a police procedural wired tighter than a snare-trap.
The brutality in Wind River is a reflection of the brutality done to women in a too-often savage world, evoking the feeling of illusory occupation—men making their way through the wilderness, white Americans roaming through First Nation’s land. Rarely has a film’s brief, closing reminder of the reality it’s just dramatized—“While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women”—seemed so sobering.