“I knew this girl, and she was a fighter. However far you think she ran, I can promise you she ran farther…”
I couldn’t find an exact verbatim quote, but that’s the kind of affecting, succinctly written dialogue to be found in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, a deeply moving knockout of a film. The third in a so far brilliant stateside saga dubbed the ‘frontier trilogy’ (following Sicario and Hell Or Highwater), River is the beast of the bunch, a surprisingly emotional, fully engaging murder mystery set in yet another harsh, weather beaten vista where life struggles to survive, namely a desolate Indian reservation in the heart of Wyoming. We open with life in jeopardy right out of the gate: as Nick Cave’s haunting original score howls across the snowy plain, a terrified young girl flees through the landscape, alone and injured. She doesn’t make it through the night. This sparks an investigation from the scant law enforcement the area has to offer (Graham Greene is wonderfully world weary as the tribal Sheriff), a rookie FBI Agent (Elizabeth Olsen) and a veteran game tracker (Jeremy Renner in hands down the best work he’s ever done) who’s rocked by his own personal tragedy. Their task is anything but easy, stalled on all sides by criminal activity, uncooperative suspects and that ever present, ruthless winter climate. The mystery, although not quite as elaborate as one might imagine going in, is an unfortunate and infuriating situation that fires up the blood, as well as Renner’s dogged hunting instinct and need for retribution, an act he solemnly promises to the girl’s broken father, played by Gil Birmingham in the kind of show stopping, heartbreaking performance that pretty much demands a best supporting nod. Renner is just… so good, and it’s jarring to see him out of that glossy Hawkeye getup and in a role with some real heft, but he carries himself with grave charisma, especially in a monologue that will have eyes, ears and hearts rooted to the screen. This is Sheridan’s first time in the director’s chair and the guy proves he’s just as uncannily gifted as he is with writing, especially when it comes to action, his rendition of the classic Mexican standoff/shootout is queasily suspenseful and the best sequence of it’s kind that I’ve seen in years. He’s also got a knack for finding just the right musical talent for his pictures as well. Sicario saw Jóhann Jóhannsson whip up an audible nightmare of a score, and Hell Or Highwater also had the benefit of Cave and Warren Ellis, whose compositions here echo out through the desolation like laments for those lost, dead and buried under the snow. Tightly paced, emotionally rich, suffocating in it’s scenes of tension, cathartically invigorating when it needs to be, all of the best things a story should be are on display here. If Sheridan’s output continues to ascend the way we’ve seen so far, he’ll singlehandedly save ol’ Hollywood.