Wind River; 111 min; Rated R

 

Before he made his debut directing “Wind River,” Taylor Sheridan was a screenwriter of considerable talent, known for taut storytelling and signature dialogue as demonstrated in the film “Sicario” and the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Hell or High Water.” He also wrote “Wind River,” the name of an Indian reservation in Wyoming. It is a remarkable film.

The film opens with a teenage Native American girl (Kelsey Asbille) running across a snow-covered meadow, the only light the dim glow of the moon. White-capped mountains are in the distance. She struggles, panic evident with every breath. She falls, and kneels, her gloveless hands clutching the snow. Her feet are bare, her only protection a blue parka. Finally she falls and remains still, her lungs having frozen from the bitter and unforgiving cold, and she chokes on her own blood. She was running from something, desperate to escape. What caused her to flee to a certain death is the essence of this engaging story.

She is discovered the next morning by U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) while hunting for a mountain lion that had been killing reservation livestock. He immediately calls the local chief of police (Graham Greene); however, since all murders on an Indian reservation fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI, a rookie agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), is sent from Las Vegas, unprepared in every way to confront not only the vast and stark and bitterly cold landscape, but the self-reliant, mistrustful, and often hopeless inhabitants of what is referred to as “the rez.” As she drives into Wind River, she spots an American flag flying upside down.

Realizing immediately that she is out of her depth, Jane asks Cory for help. He agrees for many reasons, central being that the dead girl was his recently deceased daughter’s best friend.

And so what begins as a police procedural, one to be slowly unraveled, “Wind River” is also a character study. Cory is surrounded, as are so many of the native inhabitants of the rez, by a silence and reticence that marks their every interaction.

Cory’s intelligence — his obvious skill at reading the crime scene — is disguised behind his spare responses and laconic style, to include the way he stands apart and simply stares into the distance. It’s a style that brings to mind the western cowboy, an archetype that haunts most of our assumptions about the West.

However rich and compelling, driven forward by a tragic murder, this film is also about deep and haunting loss of another kind, Cory’s as well as the people of Wind River. For many, hope is an illusion. The future is as stark and elusive as the snow-blown landscape. Cory’s resilience and tenacity, however, is, from the outset, self-evident.

What quickly becomes obvious is Sheridan’s gift for beautiful and poetic language, for dialogue that feels real and authentic. The characters, to a person, are gritty and rough-edged, each formed by their circumstances. Some are damaged beyond repair by an unforgiving reality that leaves them perpetually on the margins.

“Wind River” is superb filmmaking with a fine ensemble cast, many of which are Native American actors. This is a movie not to be missed.