“WIND RIVER” — 3 stars — Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Kelsey Asbille, Julia Jones; R (strong violence, a rape, disturbing images and language); in general release
Filmed in Utah and set on a Wyoming Indian reservation, “Wind River” is a somber and heartbreaking tribute to the plight of Native American women.
The story, which, per the film’s opening titles, is inspired by true events, is built around the murder investigation of an 18-year-old Native American woman named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille). When a Fish and Wildlife officer named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) finds her frozen body while hunting a family of mountain lions on the Wind River Indian Reservation, an FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought in from Las Vegas to investigate.
It’s apparent even before the medical examination that Natalie was a rape victim and died after fleeing her attackers barefoot several miles into the snowy wilderness. A newcomer to both the climate and the culture, Banner convinces Lambert to assist her investigation, which is also bolstered by Ben (Graham Greene), the local reservation authority.
Lambert’s unique connection to the community and the tragedy are gradually revealed as the investigation proceeds. Separated from his Native American wife, Wilma (Julia Jones), and sharing custody of their son Casey (Teo Briones), Lambert is still mourning the loss of his own teenage daughter Emily, which helps him to connect to Natalie’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham), in a way Banner cannot.
Director Taylor Sheridan plays “Wind River” as a slow burn, methodically working through the investigation while exploring the distrustful relationship between the residents of the reservation and the federal authorities. As the effort proceeds, we see the harsh day-to-day life of the reservation and slowly learn that the frigid wilderness has more secrets to share.
The third act, which finally reveals in flashback what happened to Natalie and her oil-rigger boyfriend, Matt (Jon Bernthal), is brutal and very difficult to watch. “Wind River” is a mostly quiet film, which makes its explosions of violence that much more poignant.
Renner is subtle and effective as Lambert, playing the same familiar traits he’s featured in past roles to emote the quiet, weathered wisdom of a man who chooses to live in a place where surviving feels like an accomplishment. Olsen is given a tricky balancing act, delicately juxtaposing her fish-out-of-water vulnerability with an inner toughness that is required once the investigation starts getting results.
The landscape is also a character, though Sheridan doesn’t spend a lot of time lingering gratuitously on establishing shots. Here the Utah locations are presented as a kind of matter-of-fact reality, a harsh and unpredictable environment that is more interested in being brutal than poetic.
The brutality is reflected in “Wind River’s” characters, and the film, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, explores the nature of vengeance and solitude as much as its other more explicit themes.
Because of the nature of its content, the prospect of seeing “Wind River,” though well-produced and well-acted, should give pause to sensitive viewers. It’s never gratuitous, but it isn’t exactly discreet, either. It’s an often heartbreaking and bleak movie that is more concerned with emotional vibrancy than fancy filmmaking, and it shares a message that will be difficult to forget.
“Wind River” is rated R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images and language; running time: 107 minutes.