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Wind River: Gripping murder mystery in the bleak, barren snow

Wind River grips viewers with grimly plausible components of realism, leaving a bitter taste regarding the life of Native Americans.

Hell or High Water, one of the worthier 2017 Oscar snubs, is my favorite picture of 2016 because it affirms character writing is always the salient basis of a good movie. Actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who penned the screenplay, has the aptitude for social consciousness to present his subject-matter on a small scope. At his focus are people of the new American borders and their survival tactics against the coercive yet unconcerned surroundings. By characterizing the struggles and conflicts through individuals, his screenplays aren't only about the justice system but also the interpersonal dynamics that it alters and destroys. After Sicario and Hell, Wind River marks Sheridan’s debut as a director and also concludes his Frontier Trilogy.

This crime thriller, in the vein of Scandinavian noir, grips viewers with grimly plausible components of realism. My experience with it is a visceral character study as much as a nonsensationalist commentary on how the US government has been treating, or mistreating, Native Americans. It’s named after its setting, an Indian Reservation in western Wyoming. During the opening credits, Wind River introduces its murder case when a young Native woman runs barefoot through the snow at night.

We meet hero-cowboy-of-the-snow Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a skilled marksman working for Fish and Wildlife Department. His job is to eliminate predators for the residence, and the story will involve filthy predators for him. Like Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker, Cory is a professional—a man cocksure of his skills that Renner’s aplomb almost baffles us. Sheridan describes the intricacies of Cory’s job through a montage of calibrating bullets, his instruction on horse-riding for his son, or tidbits about his tracking process. However, Cory’s personal life is less commendable than his professional one; he’s a divorced father. Still on good terms with his ex-wife Wilma (Julia Jones), he picks up his son, Casey (Teo Briones), and promises the boy one day of their own before the townsfolk call him to duty. While tracking mountain lions that attack cattle, Cory stumbles upon a dead body. As he identifies through the frostbite, the unlucky victim is Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), who we see at the beginning and also is one of Cory’s acquaintances. He wonders why and how Natalie can end up that far from any establishments or residences.

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This doesn’t belong to his jurisdiction and responsibility, so he reports to the dutiful, sarcastic Indian Chief Ben (Canadian actor Graham Greene, a full-blooded Oneida). Help from the FBI arrives in the petite Jane Banner (Renner’s MCU colleague Elizabeth Olsen). She comes unprepared; in fact, this greenhorn agent is sent by her seniors to investigate, and Chief Ben casts his doubt on her appearance and capacity. Despite setbacks, Jane proves her enthusiasm and efficiency in the case.

As the forensic officer discusses with Cory, Jane, and Ben about Natalie's death, bureaucratic procedures hamper the quest for justice. The girl didn't just run six miles like that; she must have been fleeing from someone before the cold overpowers her lungs and feet. Though forensic evidence points to murder, they can’t legally label this as a homicide, and FBI can't intervene. Agitated by this bump, Jane pushes for an answer—possibly because she always wants to prove herself. As the search progresses, Jane understands more about the victim, as well as the people here.

In a fierce action sequence, Olsen gives one of her best performances to date (next to her role in Martha Marcy May Marlene) when Jane, sightless due to Mace, stomps her way through a house that might have leads. The actress owns this scene with the unrestrained intensity of a lioness, and her physical form only extols her handling of the shootout with a drug trader, Sam LittleFeather (Tokala Black Elk). All the while, Cory carries on with his calm demeanor and suppresses two other hoodlums at the back door. Later, Jane and Cory share a moment in his cottage, where sparks could fly, but Sheridan sidelines the potential romance to focus on their duty and concentration.

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When Cory and Jane are tracking the clues, the movie gives away its sudden revelation too soon with an evident slip-up. The case is not too complex, and Sheridan chooses an easy way to explain: a flashback to the crime scene. After Sicario, Jon Bernthal again has a small role in a Sheridan movie, together with a flinty Hugh Dillon. The director makes the transition between past and present more seamless and relevant than I expected before he stages an impressive all-out crossfire. Law enforcement and criminal activity are unpredictable, and Sheridan’s writing encapsulates this broader topic into his small story.

Wind River leaves a bitter taste regarding the life of Native Americans in Wyoming. For many years, the American system has been pushing them to the border between civilization and utmost wilderness. But in this desolate habitat, mistreatment is only the second concern next to its unpleasant weather. Cinematographer Ben Richardson (The Fault in Our Stars) renders the habitat as if it were a perpetual, prevailing enemy on its own heartless might. Wind and heavy snow, erasing the clues within hours or lessening the travel speed to one-tenth of that of the snowmobiles, hinder Cory and Jane’s investigation. All of this adds to the complication of moral judgment. For “the entire reservation, which is the size of Rhode Island,” Ben supervises alongside a thin number of officers. Young adults, whether educated like Natalie’s brother Chip (Martin Sensmeier) or not, usually fall into the inviting traps of drugs and delinquency.

Parenthood is also a predominant theme, seen in the aftermath of young people’s deaths. Because Cory connects with the Indian people through his wife's family, he felt a part of his soul has attached itself to the land when his daughter died. He stays around, tries to be a good father to Casey, and sees the murder of Natalie as a chance to ease his pain. His friendship with Natalie’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham, the hilarious deputy in Hell) touches on matters of facing grief. Martin seems resilient, to near stiffness, yet Sheridan can explore softer sides of the male-male relationship when this mourning father hugs Cory and breaks out in tears. The sound of him weeping over Natalie's death can be devastating as much as cordial. This is a grown Native man shattered by injustice and loss.

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As the serious, touching score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) and handheld medium shots slowly burn snowy roads, Sheridan and Renner lead us to a cathartic conclusion. Then the title screen reads us a sad piece of information—a bitter truth to wholeheartedly grieve the loss of lives and raise social awareness.

Wind River is disturbingly realistic—borderline on despair—because the murder case is solved by two white people. On the contrary, the Natives are trapped in the grave travesty, but that fact can’t thwart the praise for their bold spirit and admirable tenacity. Survival in the wild is no game, as Cory reminds Jane of the warrior-like strength running in the veins of those Native people.