Sheridan’s previous scripts have been set in cartel-dominated Juarez and a collapsing Texas town, so with Wind River’s setting, he’s operating within his wheelhouse. There is some poverty porn wafting over the film, as the reservation is a place devoid of hope or optimism while jail is a chance to improve oneself, but on the other hand, much of Wind River is about dealing with violent loss. Whether or not Native characters have suffered a death in the family, there is a palpable sense of something missing not only in the people but in the landscape itself, as the line ‘all that’s been left to the Natives is snow and silence’ is spoken more than once. This is an environment where grief comes easy, and Sheridan earns the tone with nighttime blizzards and undisturbed valleys.
With so few people in such a vast area, any kind of violence or wrong is easy to miss. The police force led by Sheriff Ben (Graham Greene) is dramatically understaffed for how much ground they have to cover. There’s a sense that no one is watching what happens here, that depravity can freely be visited on such a vulnerable place. A terrifying sequence takes place late in the film, and it’s scary not just for how quickly things escalate from courtesy into violence but by how easily it could all be covered up if it goes the wrong way. This feeling of lawlessness has long been part of Westerns, but Wind River takes place in the present day. Technology and culture may have changed, but rural Wyoming still has one foot in the 1800’s.
Into all this comes Jane, ill-prepared for the weather much less the task at hand. There’s something of Clarice Starling to her, and Olsen plays her as vulnerable but also capable of commanding a room when she must. Her pairing with fellow MCU alum Renner is an effective one that’s more than just the gruff veteran shepherding a naïve greenhorn around. He doesn’t treat her like an idiot and she doesn’t treat him like a lackey. They both want to see this through, if only to give Natalie some justice. Characters speak with breathless admiration for how badly she wanted to live, trekking barefoot through miles of snow in freezing temperatures. It’s rare for the victim to remain such a central focus in a murder mystery, and Sheridan has deep respect for Natalie’s character.
It’s no surprise that the writer of the final scene in Hell or High Water or the border shootout in Sicario can craft tension. What is surprising is that Wind River is the most affecting of those three films, demonstrating that Sheridan can put some earnestness alongside his stoicism. Cory is uniquely suited to comfort Natalie’s father (Graham Greene), as he lost a daughter to similar circumstances. The two rugged men share a long discussion, in which Cory can only tell him what got him through: feel your feelings and be vulnerable with surviving family, or you’ll lose the memory of the dead. It’s as anti-masculine a message that’s ever going to be put across in a Western-ish film, but what has all this manliness got these characters? For them, trying something new can’t hurt. For Sheridan, sticking to what he knows is a fine proposition. B+