It’s a bleak, cold and accessibly poetic prologue that opens Wind River. A girl is sprinting and staggering for her life across an arctic terrain, with little chance of survival, as verse is dispelled in musical narration. Here is a plot so evil that it is clear screenwriter-director Taylor Sheridan’s Hell in High Water has frozen over.
The girl is Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow). She’s later discovered, dead, frozen solid and blood stained, by local Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who’s call for help to the local Tribal Police spirals upwards to the FBI and rookie special agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Totally unprepared for the harrowing weather, Banner’s there to determine whether this is a murder investigation and quickly teams up with Lambert to make the most of his vast knowledge of the area.
Wind River finds its basis in harrowing actual events. As such, personal and emotional motives drive the action both within and outwit the plot. Lambert, separated from his wife (Julia Jones), has a son who idolises him – observe the subtle mimicry in the pair’s clothing – but is wounded by the past and isolated by his own present existence. In this sense, what could be more fitting than a frozen landscape; one that kills and preserves life to equal measure.
There’s an indie vibe to the Wind River that occasionally even brings out a sense of tonal horror, along with its almost Icelandic beats. The location is fitting – somewhere between The Shining and The Thing – and there’s plenty enough to chill at work here. Though not, it must be said, in the film’s beautifully earnest direction and cinematography. Sheridan has channelled the Coen Brothers before now but does so here to the effect that you might be mistaken in believing that the film comes from their collective hands. With the visuals of Fargo and the Western vocabulary of No Country for Old Men, Wind River is even very nearly that good. ‘That was pretty cowboy huh.’
When it comes to the cast’s respective ages, genders and race, Wind River is groaningly problematic. Thankfully, however, so strong is this ensemble that it feels churlish to wish for any others to fill the roles. Reiner and Olson shine in typically solid performances, whilst Graham Greene’s is a lovely, and pleasingly comic (‘This thing’s practically solving itself!’) turn as Ben.
Much like with Sheridan’s previous work, satisfaction is drawn from a sense that his is a traditional form of filmmaking for the modern day. This North-Western applies updates to the old classics, with horseback chases are ingeniously replaced by snow-mobiles in like-for-like shooting fashions. There’s graphic violence and stark themes – including one gasp-inducing shot – but an approachability to its art. Revelations are unfolded at an easy pace and through intelligently plain talking flashback rather through excessive dialogue or attempts at wrong footing viewers. The conclusion leaves wisps of unanswered questions but brings a closure to the story, rather than confusion. ‘I’m not going to stand here and tell you life’s fair,’ says Cory, ‘cos it ain’t.’ That’s sanguine.
Absorbing, well-performed and shot with great emotional intelligence, that this is all very simply structured is key to the film’s quiet strength. Wind River may tread a path well trodden but it does so with impressive assurance.