A harsh, wintry beauty pervades “Wind River,” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s modestly assured directorial debut. In this sturdily effective thriller, Jeremy Renner plays Cory, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker whose job is to quickly dispatch the wolves and mountain lions that kill livestock on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. As an outdoorsman well versed in tracking, observing and knowing precisely which shot to take, Cory puts his skills to unexpected use when he finds the body of an 18-year-old native girl (Kelsey Asbille) dead and frozen on an isolated snowfield.
Because the circumstances are suspicious, the tribal police chief (played by a flawlessly deadpan Graham Greene) calls the FBI, which sends a rookie agent from Las Vegas named Jane (Elizabeth Olsen) to the scene. She quickly discovers she’s out of her depth, not just regarding the case at hand, but in a community steeped in mistrust of the government, tough self-reliance, grinding poverty and cruelly foreshortened prospects. Sheridan, who lived on an Indian reservation while researching the screenplay, doesn’t play up the exoticism and despair of reservation life, but he makes his point clear in an early shot of an upside-down American flag at the entrance to Wind River: Things aren’t right here, and haven’t been for a very long time.
Sheridan is best known for writing the excellent contemporary thrillers “Sicario” and last year’s “Hell or High Water.” Like those films, which were set amid the U.S.-Mexico border and post-recession desperation, “Wind River” engages present-day social issues through the lens of conventional suspense-driven genre. “Wind River” is inspired by true events, as a card announces at the beginning; later, Sheridan informs the audience that missing person cases aren’t tracked in native communities. Perhaps because he organized his narrative to illuminate that statistic, “Wind River” occasionally shows its schematic gear works, especially during the final third, when a tense showdown, a gruesome flashback and a climactic act of revenge turn the movie from a subtle, character-driven procedural into visceral, borderline exploitative pulp.
By that time, it’s clear that “Wind River” will conclude, not with twisty complexity, but with blunt, overstated simplicity. Although Sheridan has approached the setting with the sensitivity and respect of his deeply empathic protagonist, the film still bears a slight but inescapable whiff of cultural tourism. (In one scene, Cory gives literal meaning to the term “white savior.”) As Jane, Olsen does her best with an underwritten role that evokes Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, but with none of that iconic character’s contradictions and psychological layers.
Still, “Wind River” is graced with fine performances from Greene, Gil Birmingham as a grieving father and especially Renner, who slips into Cory’s reluctant heroism as if donning a favorite camo parka. In addition to Ben Richardson’s striking cinematography and a whispery musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, “Wind River” is worth seeing if only to see Renner in the kind of starring role he so richly deserves and, with luck, will continue to find. As Cory, he brings to life the kind of super-competent, accidental crime-solver one could imagine anchoring a detective series that’s less hard-boiled than steeped in aching, unresolved loss. Renner’s tears never feel false, whether they spring from palpable grief or the stinging cold of the Wyoming backcountry.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence, a rape, disturbing images and obscenity. 107 minutes.