Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, makes his directorial debut with Wind River, a captivating thriller centered on an unlikely partnership between rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) and Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a seasoned hunter and U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent, after the discovery of a raped and murdered teenage girl in the desolate Wyoming backlands. The film itself is Sheridan’s third go at the oft-romanticized American West and the hardships the people who live there really face – drugs, poverty, violence, and a scarcity of resources and support.

When agent Banner, a Florida native from the Las Vegas office, shows up to work the case, it’s soon apparent that while she is strong-willed, she is also unprepared for the job. It’s not just what she’s wearing (stilettos); it’s unfamiliarity with the land and its people, as well as a general lack of experience. She needs a guide. And then there is Lambert. He knows the Wind River Indian Reservation like the back of his hand, spending all his time stalking coyotes, mountain lions, and the like through its many snow-covered miles, and he’s is all too familiar with this kind of case. He’s seen it before in fact – with his own daughter.

With only local reservation law enforcement and a set of snowmobiles at their disposal, the duo begins the arduous task of piecing together what happened to the girl the night she died. Banner has her way and Lambert has his. There are twists and turns as they interview locals that range from reluctant to hostile and sort through bureaucratic red tape such as an autopsy that doesn’t technically point to ‘homicide’. The audience finds out whodunit in tandem with Banner and Lambert, culminating in a sudden, shocking reveal.

Intentionally juxtaposed with the harsh subject matter are the film’s soft, poetic scenes. It’s in the cinematography, haunting score, and above all else, the performances. This is easily one of Jeremy Renner’s best films. He is so believable; you’re gut shot when he talks about the loss of his child. Gil Birmingam is a divine surprise; his death mask scene is particularly poignant and worth a re-watch. Elizabeth Olsen hasn’t been this strong since her double whammy in 2011 – Silent House and Martha Marcy May Marlene. And for the love of god, can someone please give Jon Bernthal the leading role he deserves already? His retelling of a Christmas day spent in Ojai, California is so unexpectedly touching and gentle. It is clear he is ready for a meatier role.

If you’re reaching for a critique, you might point out that the end of the movie makes a tonal shift that is a tad distracting from the rest of the piece. It becomes less of an expose on the unchecked violence posed against Native American women and more of a gunslinger-out-for-justice. Overall though, it doesn’t detract from Sheridan’s ultimate goal: revealing a real life issue without getting preachy about it. He gets you to ask the hard questions. You’ll find yourself saying, “Well surely someone is doing something about this. Surely things like this don’t actually happen.” But they aren’t and it does.

At the end of the film, we’re presented with a startling, very real statistic. While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women. Just let that sink in.

Wind River opens in theatres this Friday, August 4th.

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