FILM REVIEW: WIND RIVER

By Michael Phillips 2017-09-26

Chicago Tribune

2 stars

With the drug cartel thriller "Sicario" (2015), the West Texas bank robbery yarn "Hell or High Water" (2016) and the new, Wyoming-set "Wind River" (2017), screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has created an unofficial trilogy of crime stories sharing an unstated moral.

It goes like this: Follow the rules in America, whether you're an innocent victim, a charismatic outlaw or a valiant, frequently outmatched law enforcement official, and you'll either go broke or get killed. Soulless bureaucracy, economic deprivation and human greed may be bad for the citizenry. But they're great for stoking a writer's pulp imagination.

"Wind River" marks Sheridan's feature directorial debut. The script this time sits a few steps down from "Hell or High Water," especially, though it's fairly compelling for considerable stretches. The movie begins on a cold night, with a young woman running across the snow while lines from a poem are spoken by a solemn, ancient-sounding Native American with a voice like the wind itself. This is the woman who becomes the corpse discovered in the snow, miles from anywhere, by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker played by Jeremy Renner.

The ensuing rape and murder investigation, on Native American land, invites a tangle of competing law enforcement officials. In from Las Vegas, a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) asks the tracker, Cory, to assist her in the case. Local sheriffs and the Tribal Police chief (Graham Greene) join the investigation, warily.

Like Emily Blunt's FBI agent in "Sicario," Olsen's character in "Wind River" learns as she goes, usually from vaguely or brazenly patronizing men. The harsh conditions on the Wind River reservation involve meth heads, drug dealers and, higher up the mountain, petroleum company laborers whose lives, one man says, are nothing but snow and silence. Cory's life, meanwhile, is defined by grief. Three years earlier, we learn, his daughter (best friends with the dead teenager discovered in the snow) was murdered, with no resolution to the case. Cory shares custody of his son (Tio Briones) with his emotionally numb ex-wife (Julia Jones), and their son's biracial heritage is spelled out in an early scene of father teaching son horsemanship skills. After one successful lesson, Briones says: "Pretty cowboy, huh?" Renner replies, a touch too earnestly: "No, son. That was all Arapaho."

"Wind River" is roughly 50 percent strengths, 50 percent contrivances. Often they collide in the same scene. Early on there's a tense, violent clash in a grubby trailer that begins with mace in the eyes and ends with fatal gunshots. But when Renner's tracker enters the scene, shovel in hand, there's something off in his demeanor and behavior; suddenly we're watching the unflappable, casually brutal actions of a Clint Eastwood fantasy figure, not a man who's simply good with his reflexes and on his feet. Likewise, Sheridan delivers a standard-issue slaughterfest for a climax, reinforcing the protagonist not simply as a man of action but an avenging angel of death, in snowmobile goggles.

The most conspicuous mixed blessing of "Wind River" arrives in a lengthy, excruciating flashback sequence that answers all our worst fears regarding the young woman's rape and murder. It's skillfully set up but grueling, in ways that throw you straight out of the drama rather than intensifying it. A similar question arises in director Kathryn Bigelow's handling of the interrogation and torture sequence at the heart of "Detroit." How much pain do you put an audience through, and -- this is the key -- from which perspectives, to dramatize appalling human behavior? What's the invisible line between honorable excruciation and misjudged melodrama?

Sheridan, a Texas-born actor before he became a writer and director, can be wonderful with dialogue. That was evident to anyone who remembers the waitress in "Hell or High Water" going on about the time someone ordered trout in her steak-and-potatoes diner. In "Wind River," an ordinary scene in a coroner's office, straight out of the "SVU" mold, gradually reveals Sheridan's facility with straight exposition delivered through character. Sheridan likes to let his people talk, and that means everybody - perps and side characters, alongside the ones guiding the story.

The frontier justice streak in "Wind River" leads to far less persuasive results than Sheridan got in "Hell or High Water." Cory is almost, but not quite, a fully dimensional character; he comes off as the spiritual descendant of the mountain man in "Jeremiah Johnson" who told Robert Redford to keep his nose in the wind, and his eyes along the skyline.

"Luck don't live out here," the tracker informs the FBI agent. "Luck lives in the city." Then he keeps going with the metaphor longer than the scene actually warrants.

MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images and language).

Running time: 1:51

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