The mystery at the center of Wind River means a bit less than the political atmosphere of the setting that surrounds it, yet the screenplay by director Taylor Sheridan constantly wants us to remind us of the pieces of that mystery. The setting is upon the titular Indian reservation deep within the backwoods of Wyoming in the bitter cold of winter. Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson take enormous care to establish just what those freezing temperatures can do to the human body if one is careless, as the FBI agent sent to investigate a crime learns when she arrives wearing only a winter coat over jeans and a sweater.
It appears it's the cold that killed the young, Native American girl found frozen in the snow, barefoot, at least five miles from any civilization. She was sexually assaulted shortly before her death, and she also happens to have been the best friend of the daughter of Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the Fish and Wildlife Service agent who discovered the body while investigating the killing of a steer by, it seems, a lion. The event brings back a lot to the front of Lambert's mind, particularly about the reason for the split between him and his ex-wife Wilma (Julia Jones): Their daughter died only a few years earlier under suspicious circumstances.
The cavalry is called for back-up to the scene of the crime, although it's primarily in the form of a lone agent named Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who quickly determines that it's a homicide and launches an investigation. The character of Banner, as present here, is almost completely useless, a way of either reiterating information to the audience after they have already learned it or playing the audience herself to learn information through expository means. It's apparent through the actress's performance, too, that Olsen recognizes this fact, struggling to bring to life a static character.
Of much greater interest is the dynamic of the relationship between the Native Americans on the reservation and those outsiders who take advantage. Needless to say, outsiders are responsible for this crime, and Sheridan's screenplay is at its best when dealing with the emotional turmoil left in its aftermath: Lambert remembers his daughter to Banner in a scene that should, in any case, have been placed elsewhere in the movie (Renner is quite good here as a father slowly forgiving himself for his failings by seeking justice the only way he can), and the girl's father (played by Gil Birmingham) is wracked with grief that manifests itself in searching, sad eyes and questions on the tip of his tongue that remain unasked.
That screenplay is also concerned with the crime itself, giving way to an increasingly scattershot final act that tries to do too much. It wants to provide the "Here's what happened" moment, but when it comes, the flashback is perfunctory and awkwardly placed. It wants to have a tense standoff and resulting shootout, but they feel like tidy resolutions to an incredibly complex and sticky situation. It wants to end on the right note of ambiguity, but Wind River feels like the attempt to resolve itself tidily segues into a downbeat moment that only elicits a shrug.
Jeremy Renner (Cory Lambert), Elizabeth Olsen (Jane Banner), Graham Greene (Ben), Gil Birmingham (Martin), Julia Jones (Wilma), Teo Briones (Casey), Martin Sensmeier (Chip), Tyler Laracca (Frank), Shayne Joel Cullen (BIA Officer), Kelsey Asbille (Natalie), Jon Bernthal (Matt), James Jordan (Pete Mickens), Apesanahkwat (Dan Crowheart), Tantoo Cardinal (Alice Crowheart).
Directed and written by Taylor Sheridan.
Rated R (violence, a rape, disturbing images, language).
Released in select cities on August 4, 2017.