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In Taylor Sheridan I trust. The last two years have seen Sheridan provide some of the most tough, hard-hitting scripts with Sicario and Hell or High Water. Nobody makes bad-ass guy movies that pack a deep cultural punch better than Sheridan. And after exploring the Mexico border drug trade and Texan hardship, Sheridan turns his attention to the plight of the Native American with Wind River, a snowy, gripping thriller that proves he’s as good a director as a screenwriter.

Once again elevating his talents to the quality of the material, Jeremy Renner leads in his best performance since The Hurt Locker. He plays fish and wildlife agent Cory Lambert, a skilled hunter and tracker working the harsh Wyoming environment. It’s a place that will kill you if you don’t respect it. The temperature will freeze your lungs if the wild animals (the first thing we see Cory do is take out a trio of wolves) don’t kill you first. While not one of the many Native Americans in the territory Cory is as much a part of their community as anyone. We learn early on that he has an ex-wife and son who are part of their tribe, and there’s past tragedy between them.

Sheridan shows his skillful directorial hand early with a mesmerizing shot of a young Native American girl frantically running barefoot across a frozen plain. He makes you feel every frigid breath she gasps; makes you feel the crunch of ice when she slips. We’ll revisit that scene later when Cory, who had been sent to track down some mountain lions, discovers the girl’s dead body. Clearly, it’s a homicide, which is why the tribal sheriff (Graham Greene) calls in the feds, who send him inexperienced Las Vegas agent (by way of Ft. Lauderdale) Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to deal with it. “See what they send us”, the sheriff says, recognizing all too well how little concern the feds typically have of Indian affairs. But Jane is anything but typical. She may be unprepared for the cold weather (“Can we not do 80 on the snowmobile?”) but she shows the people the kind of attention they rarely receive.

Violence follows soon after, of course, which is what nearly always happens when whites come treading on Native soil. Sheridan recognizes that fact, and like in his previous films he uses bloodshed as a tool to further the story. While it mostly plays out like a crime procedural in a lot of ways; track the evidence, question the suspects, bust a few heads, Sheridan laces it with commentary on how much this country has stolen from these people. In that way, it actually shares a lot in common with Hell or High Water. Wealth, culture, identity, all has been taken away until there is simply nothing left but hopelessness.

While Renner and Olsen are the big names and are both great in their roles, it’s also worth noting the many native actors who are just as good. Gil Birmingham, who gave Jeff Bridges all he could handle and more in Hell or High Water, returns in a truly heartbreaking role as the dead girl’s father, who has sacrificed one thing too many to this hard life. In a larger role than he’s had in years, Graham Greene shows why he’s still one of our best character actors. There’s something about him that he always seems to be saying something profound, even when he’s just making a smart-ass remark. It means more coming from him for some reason.

Seeing Renner command the screen like this reminds me why so many saw him as a blockbuster star a few years ago. It hasn’t really panned out that way and he’s mostly been relegated to supporting roles in huge movies, but I think that will begin to change now. I can see some people being annoyed with Olsen because her character is so overwhelmed, but that’s pretty much the point. She’s as ill-equipped for such crippling brutality as we are. In a lot of ways, she reminds me of Emily Blunt in Sicario. Her perspective is crucial even if it can be frustrating.

The final act packs the explosive action we’ve come to expect from Sheridan, featuring an incredibly intense standoff that doesn’t unfold how you expect. The rhythm between violence and cultural reflection is where Sheridan continues to make his mark, not only as a writer but as a director to keep a close eye on.

THIS REVIEW WAS FIRST PUBLISHED ON ‘PUNCH DRUNK CRITICS

★★★★

Author: Travis Hopson

Travis Hopson is an independent film critic who writes on Punch Drunk Critics.

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