Loss Piles Up Deep As Wyoming Snow Drifts In 'Wind River'

Aug 3, 2017
Originally published on September 5, 2017 12:19 pm

Taylor Sheridan's tense, terse police procedural/Western, Wind River, begins with an icy, moonlit, Wyoming landscape. There's no one for miles, except a gasping, Native American teenage girl running in the snow, terrified and barefoot.

She falls. Screams. Gets up. Runs some more.

Cut to bright daylight. A wolf stalking a flock of sheep. A shot rings out as this predator is felled by another: a marksman who, in his snow-camouflage gear, blends invisibly into the landscape. Cory (played by Jeremy Renner) also blends in socially, though there aren't many folks to blend in with next to the Wind River Indian Reservation. His being close to the people there is what makes this film compelling in a genre that's become so cut-and-dried the term "thriller" barely describes it any more.

Sheridan wrote Hell or High Water, the 2016 Oscar-nominated police procedural that was also unusual for being character-based and surprising. This time, he's sitting in the director's chair, and he turns out to be as adept at realizing the words on a script's page as he is at putting them there in the first place.

He has conceived Cory as a man of few words and enormous pain. After losing a teenage daughter, he became estranged from his Native American wife (Julia Jones) but remains devoted to both her and their son, Casey (Teo Briones). So he offers to take the boy to visit her parents on the reservation while she's away job hunting. It'll be an opportunity to mentor the kid about rifles ("Remember, a gun's always loaded, even when it ain't"), something Cory does almost without thinking, passing on skills, insights, knowledge — a trait that will soon come in handy.

Their trip to the "rez" involves a hunt for the mountain lion that killed a yearling on grandpa's land, during which Cory comes across the body of the teenage girl we saw earlier, frozen in the snow.

FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson) flies in from Las Vegas. She's dressed for cold in Vegas, notes the local sheriff (the ever-reliable Graham Greene), and about as clueless about Wyoming winters as that fact suggests. When they get to the body near the tree line, she sees evidence of foul play, but Cory, a tracker, looks at the girl's footprints in the snow and sees a whole story unfolding. More mentoring, as he clues her in to what the clues suggest: that the girl died from an intake of icy air that froze her lungs, causing them to fill up with blood.

Jane wonders how far she had run. Cory looks around at the nothing in all directions before he replies: "Oh, I don't know. How do you gauge someone's will to live?"

If that sounds like dialogue from a classic Western, poetic in its sparseness, that's by design. Sheridan makes contemporary films that for all practical purposes are Westerns, and in them he deals with a host of current social issues. His characters are pushed to extremes by circumstances — not just that girl who turns out to have run 6 miles barefoot in the snow, but also elders in her community (played by Native American actors Gil Birmingham and Tantoo Cardinal) and even the bad guys.

Sheridan paints a searing picture of life on society's margins — people who live with "silence and snow" and not much else. And if the conclusion to his film's mystery is a bit of a rush to judgment — breathless, yes, but less breathcatchingly arresting than what's gone before it — he's still managed to make Renner and Olsen feel like icons while keeping them rendingly real. And that allows the sense of loss in Wind River to pile up, deep as snow drifts.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Taylor Sheridan has been making a name for himself as a screenwriter who tells stories set in the American West. His drug cartel movie "Sicario" took place on the U.S.-Mexico border. His Oscar-nominated police procedural "Hell Or High Water" roamed all over Texas. And now he has both written and directed a film set on a Native American reservation. It's called "Wind River." Here's our critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Wyoming - an icy, moonlit landscape - no one anywhere for miles except a teenage girl running in the snow, terrified and barefoot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIND RIVER")

KELSEY ASBILLE: (As Natalie, screaming).

MONDELLO: She falls, gets up, runs some more. The next scene is in bright daylight, a wolf stalking a flock of sheep. A shot rings out as it's felled by a marksman who, in his snow camouflage gear, blends into the landscape. Played by Jeremy Renner, this guy, Cory, also blends in socially, though there aren't many folks to blend in with. He has a Native American wife and son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIND RIVER")

JEREMY RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) I got to go to the res (ph) tomorrow, figure I take Casey by to see your folks.

JULIA JONES: (As Wilma) Something killed a yearling in the pasture behind their house.

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) Yeah, that's why I'm going. Case (ph)...

TEO BRIONES: (As Casey) Dad?

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) Come on, bud.

BRIONES: (As Casey) OK. I'm coming.

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) Time to go. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what's your BB gun pointed at right now?

MONDELLO: Pointing the gun away, a sheepish Casey drops his bag.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIND RIVER")

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) Come down here.

BRIONES: (As Casey) Sorry, Dad.

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) What's the rule, bud - gun's always loaded, even if it ain't, right?

BRIONES: (As Casey) Yes.

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) OK.

MONDELLO: Mentoring is something Corey does almost without thinking, passing on skills, insights, knowledge, a trait that will soon come in handy. While looking for the mountain lion that killed that yearling, he comes across the body of the teenage girl we saw earlier frozen in the snow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIND RIVER")

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) I need emergency assistance.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What's your location?

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) The Wind River Indian Reservation.

MONDELLO: An FBI agent is flown in from Vegas dressed for cold in Vegas, notes the local sheriff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIND RIVER")

ELIZABETH OLSEN: (As Jane Banner) I'm Jane Banner, FBI.

GRAHAM GREENE: (As Ben) Welcome to Wyoming - all by yourself?

OLSEN: (As Jane Banner) It's just me.

GREENE: (As Ben) That's Cory Lambert. He's the one who found the body.

MONDELLO: Once they get to the site, Jane, played by Elizabeth Olsen, realizes she's out of her depth. She sees evidence of foul play. But Cory, a tracker, looks at the girl's footprints in the snow and sees a whole story unfolding - more mentoring.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIND RIVER")

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) She ran until she dropped here. See the pool of blood where her face hit the snow? Now, it gets to 20 below here at night, so if you fill your lungs up with that cold air and you're running, you could freeze them up. Your lungs fill up with blood. You start coughing it up. So wherever she came from...

MONDELLO: He looks around. There's nothing - nothing at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIND RIVER")

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) She ran all the way here. Her lungs burst here. She curled up in that tree line and drowned in her own blood.

OLSEN: (As Jane Banner) Well, how far do you think someone could run barefoot out here?

RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) Oh, I don't know. How do you case someone's will to live, especially in these conditions? But I knew that girl. She's a fighter. So no matter how far you think she ran, I can guarantee you she ran further.

MONDELLO: If that sounds like dialogue from a classic Western, poetic in its spareness, that's by design. Writer and director Taylor Sheridan makes contemporary films that, for all practical purposes, are westerns. And he deals with a host of current social issues in the process. His characters are pushed to extremes by circumstances - not just that girl who ran 6 miles barefoot in the snow but her parents, played by indigenous actors Gil Birmingham and Tantoo Cardinal - and even the bad guys.

Sheridan paints a searing picture of lives on society's margins, people who live with the silence and snow and not much else. He's made Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen icons while keeping them real, which allows the sense of loss in "Wind River" to pile up deep as snow drifts. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.