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Friday, September 01, 2017

Wind River

At the end of Wind River, the new crime thriller from writer-director Taylor Sheridan (who wrote the screenplay for last year's Hell or High Water), we get a curious disclaimer that states there are no records kept on how many Native American women go missing every year.  It's curious, because although the plot does revolve around a young Native American woman going missing and turning up dead, it's not really what the movie is about.  Rather, it's about the pain of the father, and the pursuit of revenge.

If Wind River does come up just a tiny bit short in some ways, it's not for lack of trying.  The sprawling winter landscapes that Sheridan has captured creatures a sense of isolation, loneliness and eerie calm that carries throughout the film, and creates a genuine sense of tension.  There are also some great performances here, particularly by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, as the two people placed at the head of the investigation when a woman's body is discovered dead and oddly barefoot in the middle of a vast snowfield where there's not a sign of life to be found for miles.  It's an intriguing set up, and the characters are easy to like.  But as the plot unravels, we're disappointed to learn that the movie has little else on its mind other than simple revenge.  I'm not saying a mystery has to be complex to be satisfying, but I guess I was expecting just a little bit more.  This is a good movie, but we know that Sheridan is capable of more, and probably will do even better next time.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent who patrols the snowy wilderness of Wyoming, looking for predators feeding on the local livestock.  He goes out in search of a family of mountain lions, but instead finds a young dead woman lying frozen in the snow (Kelsey Asbille).  When the body is examined later, it is discovered that she was sexually assaulted.  She apparently managed to flee, until the cold finally got to her.  Cory instantly recognizes her as Natalie, who happens to be the daughter of a close friend of his (Gil Birmingham).  The incident becomes personal for Cory, as he too once had a daughter who was killed years ago, and was found frozen in the snow under similar mysterious circumstances.  The traumatic event still haunts him, as well as his ex-wife (Julia Jones), who is distant to him during their brief meetings.

The connection between the recent murder and the murder of Cory's daughter years ago is supposed to give him a personal reason to get involved, even if it does feel a bit too overly coincidental.  Regardless, the investigation into the young girl's death moves on, led by a tribal police officer named Ben (Graham Greene), and a rookie FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who is not quite ready for the harsh winter environment, having just been flown in from Las Vegas.  Jane recognizes early on that Cory's hunting and tracking skills will be of use to her in the investigation, and asks him to help.  This leads to the strongest and most likable aspect of the film, as the dialogue the two characters share, and the chemistry between Renner and Olsen, creates some of the strongest individual moments in the film.  Just watch the scene where Cory tells Jane about his past with his own daughter who died under mysterious circumstances, and you will see some of the best acting in the movie, as well as probably one of the better acted scenes of the year so far.

The characters are easily the strongest aspect of Wind River.  Sheridan creates these people, gives them interesting personalities, and then gives them plenty of opportunities to play off one another.  The performances are first rate too, giving them more dimension than they might have had on the written page.  We get involved in the mystery because of these people, and we're genuinely interested in what they're going to find and say next.  However, when the mystery is finally revealed in the form of a lengthy flashback, we're disappointed to learn just how little there is behind it all.  Yes, it's appropriately tragic, and the reveal is acted just as well as the rest of the movie.  It's just, kind of basic in its explanation and how everything is kind of spelled out for the audience.  Maybe I was a bit disappointed because Sheridan's previous two crime drama screenplays (Sicario and Hell or High Water) were such high water marks for the genre.  The mystery's not really bad, it just is not up to what we know the writer can do.

But there's still a lot to enjoy here.  As is to be expected with Sheridan, the dialogue is largely first rate, with strongly developed characters and moments of quiet humor sneaking in once in a while.  And cinematographer Ben Richardson uses the snowy landscape to the best of his advantage, creating some wonderful wide shots that capture the beauty and the emptiness of the setting.  The ominous silence of the snow-covered valleys creates a layer of tension for most of the film, and helps ram home the fact that the environment itself can be just as deadly as any murderer who may be lurking in the nearby town. 

It really is only in the third act that Wind River goes a little bit off, but not so much that I can't still recommend the film.  There's a lot to be awed at here, and even if the answers waiting at the end aren't as good as I was hoping for, I enjoyed taking the journey with the characters and these great performances.  And really, the movie only falters just a little when you hold it up to Sheridan's previous work.  On its own, it's perfectly fine.

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