Until it goes off the rails, writer/director Taylor Sheridan's "Wind River" shapes up to be a compelling murder mystery. The film's opening scene shows a young woman desperately running through a remote, snowy landscapes, obviously trying to outpace whoever or whatever is pursuing her. Ultimately, we learn her fate when Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a tracker who is assisting the police in the search for the missing girl, stumbles upon her body. Turns out she had been sexually abused prior to her death, which took place on the barren Wind River reservation for Native Americans in Wyoming. Cory has to deliver the bad news to the girl's father (Gil Birmingham), whose wife is already suffering from a mental disorder. Ironically, the victim, Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), was the best friend of Cory's own daughter, who died under tragic and unsolved circumstances a few years prior. Both men are now forced to cope with staggering grief even as Cory continues to assist police in pursuing whoever killed Natalie. The FBI sends a single agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to head the investigation. She is given an arms-length reception by the local constable on the reservation (Graham Greene in an excellent performance) because she seems like an ill-equipped city slicker. It will come as no surprise to anyone that she proves to be a quick learner and earns everyone's respect with her courage and brainpower.
"Wind River" is an indie film getting an unusually wide release (it credits twenty-five people as producers/co-producers). It boasts outstanding cinematography by Ben Richardson, who makes the bleakness of the Wyoming winter landscape a truly foreboding place. Taylor Sheridan, who specializes in films about rugged individualism, has considerable skill with his actors, and gets top-notch performances from Renner, Olsen and every actor who appears even in the smallest role (kudos to casting directors Lauren and Jordan Bass.) In terms of acting and atmosphere, the film is commendable on every level. However, Sheridan the screenwriter lets down Sheridan the director with a script that meanders half-way through. Just as I was crediting him for avoiding gun battles and concentrating on character development, it devolves into a shocking act of violence that leads to a flashback sequence that depicts another despicable act of violence that brutally depicts the sexual abuse of a young woman. While the scene is designed to shock, it also becomes somewhat prurient and difficult to view. The script falls off a cliff as Cory gets closer to resolving the murder largely because there is no "Aha!" moment that every good mystery commands. Sheridan provides plenty of red herrings but an expected link to two key elements of the story that never materializes (I can't say more without issuing a "Spoiler Alert!") What's left is an ambitious and impressive effort that falls short of its possibilities. Renner makes a stalwart leading man but Olsen's character seems like needless window dressing; someone tossed into the mix to mitigate the otherwise all-male dominance of the story line. The film has its heart in the right place, demonstrating the shame of having Native Americans still living on remote reservations, but Sheridan can't make up his mind about whether he wants to tell a compelling mystery story or make a social commentary. The result is a mishmash of intelligent dialogue mingled with needlessly exploitive violence.