Though Taylor Sheridan has only written three screenplays, the values at play in them are already a given. Good men are weary and suspicious, while the bad ones are erratic and prone to violence. Women are determined but inherently vulnerable. Trust needs to be earned rather than offered, and no character trait is more esteemed than that strain of truculent, just slightly flowery stoicism that cinema uses to convey self-reliance. And, of course, the world is harsh and unfair. The first scene of Wind River depicts a barefoot woman running and screaming, then collapsing into a snowy landscape—and the second shows a flock of sheep menaced by a trio of snarling wolves.
Sheridan’s film slips into formula and redundancy with alacrity. The snows of Wyoming represent the dualities at work here: pureness and unforgiveness. Few seem to know this better than Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an officer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s a tracker who hunts animal predators in order to preserve livestock populations, and Lambert is familiar with the Wind River Indian Reservation thanks to both his work and his personal life: He married Wilma (Julia Jones), a woman from the reservation, but their relationship failed after the death of one of their two children.
Lambert uses his job to avoid his grief (he’s shown making his own bullets with gunpowder at night), but his discovery of the dead Wind River teenager, Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), forces this trauma to resurface. Her death is another in a series of numbing tragedies on the reservation, which is marked by poverty and inattention. Its residents are left to fend for themselves.
Sheridan lays out this emotional terrain so neatly that it’s a surprise when the film all but abandons it upon the arrival of Jane Bremmer (Elisabeth Olsen), the F.B.I. officer sent to determine whether Natalie’s death was a homicide. Bremmer is green but determined, and she employs Lambert’s knowledge of the terrain to trace Natalie’s murder to a plot of land leased by an oil company and patrolled by private security forces.
Wind River’s most rewarding surprises come in how crucial plot developments arise from matters of borders and bureaucracy, but Sheridan’s script is fatally keyed to Lambert’s unwavering stoicism. He spends most of the film in either a cowboy hat or a snowsuit of white camouflage, two pieces of armor that indicate, respectively, his honor and his ability to circumvent the region’s innate racial tensions. Lambert smooths over the film’s more intriguing rough edges, uniting white police and native victims by way of dull, repetitive platitudes. Variations of “I only know what the tracks say” and “You survive or you surrender” are ubiquitous, but Sheridan’s clumsy neo-noir poetry is best summarized by the local sheriff, Ben (Graham Greene): “This isn’t the land of backup. This is the land of you’re on your own.” It’s the work of a J.D. Vance who thinks he’s Cormac McCarthy, locating the new American underbelly well outside the urban confines of the crime saga’s heyday.
As an anointed guide to the crime sagas of flyover country, Sheridan’s pithy, cleverly constructed work has been somewhat elevated by Denis Villeneuve and David McKenzie, directors with an easy mastery of scale and landscape. But when Sheridan is left to his own devices, his work seems more abrupt and shallow, no more so than when he resolves all of this film’s lingering questions in one unremittingly nasty sideswipe of a flashback. The blinding, snowbound vistas are despairing but flat, and much of the film’s ostentatious violence is captured in shaky shots detached from any evident point of view.
The film’s score, another collaboration between Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, awkwardly juxtaposes ghostly choral moans and trippy industrial soundscapes. Sheridan’s subtle, uniformly terrific supporting cast does a lot to temper these laborious tactics, but the film succumbs to Lambert’s didacticism: His perceived humility masks a smug, Manichean worldview.