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The bleak badlands of ‘Wind River’

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Character-driven mystery quiet, intensely compelling

Up until a couple of years ago, Taylor Sheridan wasn’t much of a name. He was a working actor, one who had done enough stuff to maybe elicit the occasional “Hey, it’s that guy!”

And then we saw his screenplays.

With 2015’s “Sicario” and last year’s “Hell or High Water,” Sheridan announced himself as a major talent, a force to be reckoned with as a screenwriter. His powerful gift for storytelling is once again on display in his latest film “Wind River,” which he also directed.

It’s the story of two people – a tracker and an FBI agent – and their efforts to unearth the circumstances of a young woman’s mysterious death on a Native American reservation is Wyoming. But this community has plenty of pain in its past – public pain and secret pain – and not everyone is interested in seeing the truth brought into the light.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner, “Arrival”) is a veteran game tracker working in the wilds of Wyoming. He and his estranged wife Wilma (Julia Jones, “The Ridiculous 6”) are raising their son Casey (Teo Briones in his feature debut) in the shadow of a tragic loss to their family.

One day, out hunting a rogue lion, Lambert stumbles upon the body of a local girl miles from anywhere in the middle of the Wind River reservation. He reports the crime to the reservation’s police chief Ben (Graham Greene, “The Shack”), who in turn calls in the FBI.

The closest available agent is Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, “Ingrid Goes West”) out of Las Vegas, a relative newcomer to the FBI who isn’t quite prepared for the insularity of the Native population she’s ostensibly there to help.

Banner enlists Lambert’s aid to help her track down the perpetrators of this horrific crime – she simply doesn’t have all of the skills necessary to solve a crime in the snowy badlands. Lambert has his own reasons for agreeing, but before long, the story of what happened to this woman becomes muddied. The truth will prove difficult to track down, but when you need to hunt, who better to enlist than a hunter?

Sheridan has demonstrated his ability to wrap compelling stories in bleak settings with his past work. He also has a knack for creating damaged characters who alternately overcome and succumb to their damage. That sense of ever-teetering balance combined with his stark locations is extremely present in “Wind River.”

That said, Sheridan the director isn’t quite the storyteller that Sheridan the writer is. Not yet. The visual vocabulary isn’t quite robust enough; there are some striking shots, but he struggles to find variety. Granted, there’s an intentional monotony to the setting, but some variance is necessary to maintain a truly engaging aesthetic – and we don’t get quite enough.

The script has many of the hallmarks of Sheridan’s previous work, though there’s an occasional rough edge that might well have been sanded off had there been another person in the room. Still, he’s an undeniably talented writer and the screenplay is very good.

There are worse choices than hitching your wagon to Jeremy Renner. He’s one of those not-quite-a-movie-star movie stars, an extremely talented actor who delights in finding sophisticated work in between CGI blockbusters. His drawling, low-key performance is a delight to watch; it’s nuanced and relatively subtle stuff. He’s got an Oscar for a reason. Olsen isn’t up to that level, though she’s definitely a gamer – she’s working hard and she almost gets there, but she isn’t quite able to match what Renner is bringing. She’s good-not-great. The supporting cast has some really strong work. Greene is really good, as is Gil Birmingham as the father of the murdered girl. Jon Bernthal shows up late for a brief but impactful appearance.

For a first foray into the writer/director realm, “Wind River” is undeniably a success. It’s an emotionally powerful film that features some good performances. However, it does seem to have suffered a little from Sheridan’s taking of the auteur reins. Of course, when your first two scripts lead to movies with seven Oscar nods – including one for your screenplay – the bar has been set pretty high, so you probably deserve a little slack.

“Wind River” marks a new step forward for Taylor Sheridan – a step toward a future likely rife with excellence. There’s plenty of greatness yet to come.

[4.5 out of 5]

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