Building and holding tension in a film is a difficult art. Just this year we have seen plenty of failed efforts. Free Fire, featuring Brie Larson, was surely meant to become a cult-classic, with its retro feel and endless shooting. Instead it quickly turned silly and boring. The new John Wick film disappointed after the thrilling first part; the producers should have held on to the original director David Leitch, who made a gorgeous new film, Atomic Blonde.
Tension is so tricky, we tend to notice — feel — it when it is there for the duration of a film. Which is why I love Taylor Sheridan’s work. He is a Texan screenwriter whose recent streak can count as a hat-trick: when a soccer player scores three goals in one match. The original thriller Sicario, which he wrote, was followed last year by his script for the supreme neo-western Hell or High Water.
Now we have Wind River, another tight tale set in the empty vastness of the American West. He wrote and directed this one, getting Jeremy Renner in his best role yet as a quiet hunter in wintery Wyoming. Renner plays Cory Lambert, who tracks animals preying on livestock while he grieves the loss of his teenage daughter. Having also lost his Native-American wife after this loss, Lambert finds solace — or perhaps just the isolation he craves — in the freezing landscape of a brutal Wyoming winter.
After he happens upon the mangled body of a teenage girl in a snow field, miles from anywhere, the FBI is informed. This crime has taken place on a reservation, meaning the Feds come in. That would be agent Jane Banner, played with an overdone deer-in-the-headlights look by Elizabeth Olsen. It’s a weak performance by Olsen, who was quite good in the Captain America films and the pleasant upcoming indy Ingrid Goes West. Here she is out of her depth and the excellent actors around her highlight it. But they also cover for her weakness: their skills and Sheridan’s storytelling are too good for the film to be dragged down.
Once the search for the killer begins, Renner’s sad, likable character is flanked by the Canadian actor Graham Greene as a Native American police chief both cynical and kind, and Gil Birmingham, who plays Martin, the grieving father of the dead girl. Birmingham captures a beautiful, tense, and silent essence in Martin. The separate yet shared grief of the two fathers gives the film some its intensity; we wait to find out whether they will come together in the pain or face each other, violently perhaps.
Both native actors excel as they execute what seems to be Sheridan’s self-imposed assignment: exposing the struggles of everyday folks in the empty spaces of America. While his films are not overtly political, they weave meticulous stories about small-town people getting screwed — by banks, by the government, by drug cartels, by drunken criminals.
Wind River is at heart a tight murder mystery. In the final act a flashback lays bare the shocking truth about what happened to the girl. Yet is also a story about grief and friendship and the hardship of life on the reservation. Sheridan stays detached while drawing attention to the misery, the addiction, unemployment, violence and missing women. He never tells his audience what to think or feel, but he does ask you to look. “That snow and silence, that’s the only thing that hasn’t been taken from them,” Cory Lambert tells Jane about the Native American people around them.
At times, looking at the pain Sheridan depicts can be difficult. But the reward is worth it, when you can let it all go after an hour and 51 minutes of ice-cold tension.
Wind River is rated R. It opens August 4 in New York and Los Angeles, expanding nationwide on August 18.