After writing the superb Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan moves back into the director’s chair for this thriller, which mixes a real-life issue with a compelling procedural mystery. It’s a gorgeously shot film with especially well-developed characters who bring intensity and emotion to every scene. And they’re expertly played by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.
It’s set on the Wind River native American reservation in Wyoming, a spectacular mountain landscape under a blanket of winter snow. An 18-year-old woman (Kelsey Asbille in flashbacks) has been found murdered in the wilderness, and FBI agent Jane (Olsen) has arrived to investigate. With no experience in this kind of situation, she gets help from local Fish & Wildlife officer Cory (Renner) as well as the reservation sheriff Ben (Graham Greene). But Cory is finding this case very difficult, as the victim was the best friend of his daughter, who was killed two years ago. This gives Cory a special desire to solve the case, no matter where it leads.
Without ever getting flashy, the plot grinds along with a variety of revelations that continually add more detail to the case, characters and, most intriguingly, community. Local customs and practices continually add unexpected wrinkles, all of which guides the very specific journeys Cory and Jane are taking through this situation. So in addition to a pointed comment on the situation of native Americans in US society, the film is also a powerfully introspective drama about two people travelling their own paths through this terrain.
Both Renner and Olsen create real people we can’t help but feel for, a combination of experience and resilience, hidden emotions and untapped power. And the script pays attention to the side characters as well, including an unusual and complex role for Jon Bernthal and a viscerally emotional part for the excellent Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water) as the victim’s father.
The film is technically gorgeous, with spectacular cinematography by Ben Richardson and a superbly moody score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. With a final on-screen caption, Sheridan adds a sharp kick to the film, touching on an issue that is rarely covered. And it’s refreshing that he never preaches these themes loudly at all. Instead, he lets everything simmer in the background, even as the story goes into some very grim corners of humanity without flinching. Which ultimately makes the film both haunting and darkly moving.