Wind River is the name of a Native American reservation in the Wyoming wilds. It’s also a description of the unforgiving terrain, a central character in Taylor Sheridan’s superb mystery. In these sub-zero temperatures, flesh blackens with frostbite in minutes, and hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) dresses like a stormtrooper on Hoth. “It could be sunny for an hour,” he says of the weather. “Then you’re in hell again.” Indeed, we are.
While out on the reservation tracking a mountain lion, Lambert finds the body of local girl Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), raped and battered. Crucially, it was the cold that killed her, after she ran, barefoot, for miles from her assailant. “How do you gauge someone’s will to live, especially in these conditions?” asks Lambert.
He’s been here before – his daughter was found in similar circumstances – but this time he’s drawn into the centre of the investigation. Local police chief Ben (Graham Greene) doesn’t have the manpower to cover such a huge, inhospitable area. “I’m used to no help,” he huffs.
The FBI agent assigned to the case, meanwhile, is the tough but painfully underprepared Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), channelling a touch of Clarice Starling. “The body’s five miles on a snowmobile,” Lambert tells her. “You’ll be dead before you get there.”
Sheridan wrote Hell or High Water and Sicario, two of the best US thrillers of recent years, and has a powerful sense of how loss and the landscape carve themselves into his characters. In Wind River, everyone is adrift. “Locals” such as Lambert are viewed with suspicion by the Native Americans; Banner is treated with outright contempt by all but our hero; and the younger generation fill the voids of poverty and hopelessness with drink and drugs.
As a limited man wrapped in a grief that won’t pass, Renner is on his best form since The Hurt Locker. “I’d like to tell you it gets easier,” he tells the girl’s grieving father (Gil Birmingham). “It doesn’t.” Olsen and Greene are excellent, as usual; there’s a bold, almost mystical score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; and Sheridan’s script is alternatively tough and tender.
The film may take its time to get going, but each character has an arc, however brutal, and the action scenes, when they come, are spiked with sudden, shocking bloodshed. One raid has Banner, half-blinded by Mace, taking on a trailer full of addicts – as depressing as it is thrilling. A Mexican stand-off is not just a flashpoint, but a metaphor for abject lawlessness: it’s kill or be killed, sometimes both.
In comparison with the merciless violence of the climax, the closing scenes are a touch meandering. But perhaps this is a necessary catharsis, given the intensity of what’s gone before. Despite the parade of predators – mountain lions, wolves, black spiders scuttling across the ice – it’s man that’s the real animal here; raping, killing, taking revenge with grim impunity.
Even the good guys beat confessions from their suspects. Out here, Sheridan seems to be saying, no one has jurisdiction, not even God, and he fled the scene years ago. Who can blame him?