Got any extra stars in the storeroom, Seven Days? Maybe I can borrow some from next month's supply? Five simply doesn't do it for writer-director Taylor Sheridan's revelatory new film. Whoever decided to release this Cannes Film Festival award winner in the dog days of August is either the most nitwitted or most visionary member of the Weinstein Company staff in history.
I'll put money on Wind River circling back to figure prominently in award-season conversation. Discovering it between last week's The Hitman's Bodyguard and next week's Unlocked is like finding the Hope Diamond in a gumball machine. A nice surprise, to put it mildly.
The story is set on a desolate, snow-covered reservation in Wyoming. Called Wind River in real life, it's bleaker and more impoverished than most. Having a climate that makes residents fantasize about relocating to the South Pole doesn't help.
One day, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is high in the mountains tracking a lion that's been menacing livestock. What he finds instead is the frozen body of a beaten, barefoot 18-year-old Native American woman. The mystery of her presence miles from the nearest structure is compounded by the trauma of her having been a close friend of Lambert's daughter, who died violently three years earlier.
This is the most impressive work Renner has done since 2008's The Hurt Locker. It may be his finest performance to date. He creates one of the great screen characters of recent years, a man who's learned to live with constant sorrow yet remains sharply attuned to the emotions of others. Lambert is also phenomenal at his job. In one of the picture's many affecting scenes, he breaks the news to the victim's father (Gil Birmingham), who happens to be a good friend. Eventually, the man bursts into tears. Lambert embraces him and then offers his coded promise: "I'm a hunter."
On a reservation, homicide is a federal crime, so the FBI is called in. The local sheriff (the great Graham Greene) isn't surprised when the FBI agent is a young woman from Las Vegas in a flimsy windbreaker. "See what they send us?" he sighs to Lambert. Elizabeth Olsen costars as agent Jane Banner. She's out of her depth but sharp enough to realize she'll be able to conduct a proper investigation if she teams up with the tracker.
Together the two follow the few leads they have through remote and inhospitable backcountry, often on snowmobile. The filmmaker, who wrote 2015's Sicario and last year's stunning Hell or High Water, delivers a stark crime drama suffused with no-nonsense poetry. Much is contributed by the stellar lensing of Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and the beautifully spooky score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which so mournfully echoes the one Cave created for The Proposition (2005). A good part of being a great director is knowing whom to hire.
Wind River fires on all cylinders. Spare, knowing and powerful, Sheridan's dialogue is worth the price of admission. He's crafted a work that movingly combines shocking brutality with understated tenderness. Take the moment when the mourning father sits on the frozen ground outside his home, staring past the horizon. Lambert, his job done, joins him. "Do you have some time to sit with me?" he asks. The scene's a small marvel, the bond of grief between the two at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.