The violence in “Wind River” will take your breath away. As it should.
We’ve become so inured to it — in the movies and on TV — that we forget the shock that accompanies it. We don’t know how loud high-caliber firearms actually are up close, the jolt of their impact, the carnage they wreak.
Actor-turned-director Taylor Sheridan’s modern Westerns — “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and the latest, “Wind River” — take place in violent worlds full of brutish men who, on their best day, regard the guns that are part of their lives as tools.
And on their worst days? You don’t want to know.
“Wind River” reminds us that there’s still a lot of “wild” in the West. Set on the frigid plateau of Wyoming, where isolation and despair go glove-in-hand with contempt for government, drug abuse and a seriously unsentimental view of nature, wildlife and wild places, it’s the worst place imaginable to solve a murder.
FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is totally out of her element with “you people,” as she tactlessly refers to the locals on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The tribal police chief (the great Graham Greene) is alternately resigned to the fact of her assistance, and amused by her attempt.
“Don’t lead me on,” he grouses at one point. “I’m used to no help.”
The “you people” thing cuts both ways. And he has news for her brand of “you people.”
“This isn’t the land of ‘back-up,’ Jane. This is the land of ‘on your own.'”
But they aren’t alone. Cory, played to near-perfection by Jeremy Renner, grew up here, a working class Joe whose latest job takes advantage of his lost-art skills. He works for the Fish and Wildlife Service as a tracker of predators that kill livestock — a tracker and a hunter. Jane, quick to point out that as a lone FBI agent, “I’m not here to solve this,” leans on his wilderness skills.
Because Cory’s the one who stumbled across an Arapahoe teen, barefoot and frozen to death in the snow. He sees things forensics won’t.
“All I know is what the tracks say.”
One of the pleasures of Sheridan’s tightly-woven script is the way Cory’s grim stoicism has a source, and that and his local ties — a white man who married and divorced a Native American (Julia Jones) — give him entre to that world, even if he’s an outsider.
The victim’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham, of “Hell or High Water,” finally freed of “Twilight”) may be fatalistic.
“She’s just a girl that lost her way in the snowis all.”
But Cory knows better. He and Martin share something.
“Let yourself suffer.”
The crime itself — recreated in grisly flashback — isn’t that much of a mystery. “Wind River” is more about the culture clash — the Ft. Lauderdale native FBI agent finding her footing in the shadow of Fort Laramie. It’s about the remote, forbidding cold where jurisdictions overlap and all manner of dead-enders disregard the lawmen and women trying to keep them in line, where any confrontation is going to have firearms.
The airless tedium is tempered by the innate awareness that living and dying is done on the knife’s edge in country this hard.
“Luck don’t live out here.”
In “Hell of High Water,” Sheridan used a heist picture to point his camera at ageing, dying Western towns and the institutions that let them die. Here, it’s the hopeless neglect of Indian Reservations — children raised the way they’ve always been raised, but with grinding, inescapable poverty and deadly new drug distractions that eat into families and society.
He also has a tendency to cast the prettiest movie stars, which washes some of the grit off his movies. Here, Olsen’s runway-ready look earns comment and is a distraction. She needed to de-glam a bit, like Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs” or Chris Pine in “Hell or High Water.” Actors remind us they’re actors when they’re too well-groomed and turned out to look like the land has worn on them.
Rent “Frozen River” or “Winter’s Bone” and catch the contrast. This film rarely feels as cold as its first scenes, and never as cold as everybody is making out. The promised blizzard is a bust.
And the third act has a few moments where the script lets Renner hit the Western Icon button too hard.
But the “Hurt Locker” star brings a virile competence to Cory, a man in his element — hand-loading the rounds he uses in his work tool — a rifle — watching the skies to know when the blizzard is coming, scanning the ground to see who ran off where. Just the way he mounts his snowmobile — riding on one-knee to sit up higher and see further ahead, hurtling along on the edge of reckless — embeds him in the character and the place.
He and Sheridan and some terrific, under-used supporting players (the omnipresent hulk Jon Bernthal among them) give “Wind River” a somber, grim grace and the relentless forward motion of a thriller that isn’t just seen, but stared-down, because that’s the warrior code of the place and the people struggling to live there.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Kelsey Asbille, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones
Credits: Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. A Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 1:47