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‘Wind River’ review: Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut a compelling thriller

"Wind River" stars Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner. Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company / Fred Hayes

Wind River

Directed by Taylor Sheridan

Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene

Rated R

“Wind River” is a gritty murder mystery layered with a social conscience, in which the real story is not the individual case being investigated but a larger and darker history of subjugation.

The film shares its title with the Wyoming Native American reservation that serves as its setting, and it follows U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who has a strong personal link to the place, and FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), as they investigate the death of a young woman found shoeless in the snow, miles away from everything.

The directorial debut of screenwriter-actor Taylor Sheridan (fresh off an Oscar nomination for his “Hell or High Water” script), “Wind River” projects a sense of despair mixed with a tangible current of strength.

The filmmaker engages directly with the ingrained despair in a place stricken by the travails of widespread opioid addiction and general malaise, and he’s persistent in the ways he contextualizes the plot within the scope of the apparent real-life epidemic of unsolved missing Native American women cases.

It’s that broader attention that distinguishes the movie well beyond the particulars of who did what and why. There’s an otherworldly quality to the way it goes about its business, from the epic shots of the lonely snow-covered landscape to the sudden bursts of violence that characterize shootouts with drug-addled locals.

Sheridan crafts dialogue that authentically takes stock of the long-standing narratives of American life that have shaped this place.

It’s no small thing to make a movie that both follows the conventions of a genre and deepens and defies them. Sheridan, through his writing and now as a director, has shown a particular aptitude for doing this and must be considered an essential cinematic voice.

There’s no great satisfaction to be had in “Wind River,” none of the catharsis expected of a more ordinary movie. There are no winners, only survivors.

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