Many times, the image of red blood on white snow is as beautiful as it is haunting. With the arrival of a fresh coat of snow, the blood might be covered up, but it doesn’t disappear.
Such is the case with Wind River, a stylish and suspenseful thriller from director Taylor Sheridan (the screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water) that benefits as much from its evocative wintry landscapes as from its strong performances and its layered murder mystery.
The film takes place on a rural reservation in western Wyoming, where a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker named Cory (Jeremy Renner) — he “hunts predators,” he says — discovers the dead body of a teenage girl who apparently was raped.
Still reeling from a series of personal setbacks, Cory has ties to the tribal community, and begins asking questions along with the local lawman (Graham Greene). Then an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to launch an investigation that becomes bogged down in bureaucratic red tape over jurisdictional disputes between federal, county, and tribal authorities.
Nevertheless, their combined persistence brings them into contact with some seedy folks who inhabit the surrounding lands, including the victim’s family and some oil-rig workers with questionable ethics.
Taken on its own, the plot — which apparently is inspired by true events — doesn’t add up to much. Yet the atmospheric touches elevate the proceedings, as Sheridan immerses you in a world in which winter lasts almost year-round, where the primary mode of transportation is a snowmobile, and where lingering hostility toward outsiders often causes frontier justice to rule.
Although the timeframe is contemporary, it feels like a throwback to simpler times, without the intrusion of technology or big-city chaos. There’s an authenticity to the film’s depiction of life on the reservation, with its socioeconomic volatility and harsh climate proving both daunting and isolating.
Sheridan’s character-driven approach yields some top-notch portrayals, with Renner demonstrating his versatility as a loner whose emotions remain largely internalized. Meanwhile, Greene is terrific, and so is Gil Birmingham as the grieving father of the victim.
Provocative without turning heavy-handed, Wind River is deliberately paced but gradually ratchets up the tension. Even as it shifts toward more conventional Tarantino-style melodrama in the brutal final act, the film downplays the narrative specifics in favor of more textured chills dictated by its setting.