At times poetic, at others bleak and brutal — and how could it be otherwise, with rape and murder at the heart of its plot — this tense, convincing independent film is the most accomplished violent thriller in quite some time.
Set on the Native American reservation in Wyoming that gives the film its name, the complete plausibility of "Wind River" is attached to an unmistakable tang of authenticity. Filled with gritty dialogue from strong, well-defined characters who say only what needs to be said and not another word, this film is everything it should be and more.
Sheridan, previously known as a veteran actor and the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "Hell or High Water" and "Sicario," won a top directing award at Cannes for work that announces the arrival of a significant filmmaker.
His "Wind River" is not only a deft combination of modern and traditional approaches to the genre, it also demonstrates that when screenwriters who know what they're doing shoot their own work, they convey a deeper, fuller understanding of what they've written than we'd otherwise get.
Criminal investigations set on reservations inevitably bring to mind Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels, but, aided by an unnerving Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score, the tone here is darker, the rez a more dirt poor, hard-scrabble and dangerous place. "Luck don't live out here," someone says. "Luck lives in the city."
Sheridan has no Native American heritage, but he apparently spent considerable time on reservations before his acting career began and, aided by ace supporting actors like Julia Jones, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham and Tantoo Cardinal, he has so captured the at-times despairing mind-set there that the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana provided a key chunk of the film's financing.
Also very real (though shot in snowy Utah, not Wyoming) is the imposing Western landscape richly photographed by "Beasts of the Southern Wild" cinematographer Ben Richardson in areas so remote that equipment and crew needed snowmobiles and snowcats to get to the locations.
Because codes of masculine behavior, both positive and negative, are a major theme in "Wind River," it's critical to the film's success that it takes the time to present a detailed portrait of protagonist Cory Lambert, played by Renner.
Before we get to him, however, "Wind River" provides a chilling prologue of a terrified young woman, shown running pell-mell through deep snow in the middle of the night, fleeing an invisible threat.
Seen next is a predator of a different sort, a hungry wolf menacing a herd of goats. Getting in the way of that deadly behavior, however, is Lambert. Dressed in deep winter camouflage, he's a hunter/tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the law in these parts as far as marauding animals are concerned.
Lambert is also the divorced husband of Wilma, a Native American woman (Jones is excellent) burdened by a kind of free-floating sadness and despair.
Wilma worries as Lambert takes their young son from her house in town to visit her parents on the reservation, where the tracker is respected for his skill at a necessary job but no one, least of all him, forgets that he is not Native.
We've already seen the classically macho side of Lambert, an alpha male who even makes his own bullets, but "Wind River" now ensures that we see his tender heart as well, showing the time he takes to educate his son and, later, watching him share a heartbreaking hug with a male friend.
Renner, a two-time Oscar nominee, has been excellent in the past, but he really excels in a role that demands he be both laconic and emotional in an unfussy way. Though the part was not written for him, he owns it from the inside as if it were.
Out hunting a mountain lion in the backcountry, Lambert comes across the frozen body of that young woman from the prologue. It is Natalie (Kelsey Asbille, haunting in a later flashback), someone whose reservation family he knows.
Because of the severity of the crime on government land, FBI agent Jane Banner (a strong Olsen) draws the short straw and is flown in to investigate.
Based in Las Vegas, Banner doesn't even have winter clothes, and the scene where Lambert's displeased former mother-in-law provides them is a treat (and a wonderful moment for the veteran Cardinal).
Like Renner, Olsen walks an interesting line with her character (the two actors previously worked together in "Captain America: Civil War"). She's surely a fish out of water, as the tribal police chief finely played by Greene acknowledges when he asks "what are they thinking, sending you here?" But she must also be capable when the chips are down, able to handle herself and hold her own.
It's inevitable that Banner asks Lambert to cooperate with her, though neither she nor the audience knows aspects of his past that will factor into his behavior.
The film's disturbing violence stuns and surprises us when it comes, which is as it should be, but a closing title card reminds us that a real-world crisis underlies it. The focus here is always on character and storytelling and the acting that brings it all alive. With thrillers this good becoming a lost art, "Wind River" is definitely one to savor.
Rating: R, for a rape, disturbing images and language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles