Murder mysteries have been a Hollywood staple for a long time and with good reason. Whodunits are undeniably captivating. It’s a large part of why the O.J. Simpson trial was such a big deal and why the recent TV movie about it rehashed much of that initial obsession. It’s the same reason the Serial podcast was such a massive success and continues to garner interest from both professional and amateur observers. There’s just something inherent in humanity which fuels the desire to know…to understand. Despite the surplus of films in the genre, they usually tend to maintain a certain quality if not always capturing greatness. Wind River firmly roots itself as complex murder mystery but exceeds genre norms with strong, layered characters.

At the forefront, Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a tracker and hunter who discovers the body of a dead teenage girl while hunting a lion on Native American tribal land. To make matters worse, he knows the girl and her family. When the FBI is called in to investigate, Lambert teams with the lead agent on the case to track down those responsible for the girl’s death. Glimpses into his home life were seemingly tangential at first so when Lambert eventually communicates his motivations, it resonates much more powerfully. This was undoubtedly one of Renner’s finest performances in a very difficult role to navigate. His portrayal is expertly subtle and nuanced in the transformation of suffering from sharp to dull. So much of his character’s story happened in the past, there is a distance between him and his pain. In that space there is quiet revolt and longing. Not just for answers about his own daughter’s disappearance, but for the family life that vanished with her. Sheridan did a great job crafting this into the script so Lambert could confess this on his own rather than spoon feeding it to the audience. For his efforts, Renner will likely find himself as a finalist for Best Actor come year’s end.

Playing opposite him was Elizabeth Olsen. Despite her more recent rise in popularity thanks to roles in Godzilla (2014) and as Wanda Maximoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she had shown the range of her acting skill years prior. Here she plays the relatively inexperienced but determined FBI agent Jane Banner. Sent in as the nearest available agent by the bureau, it’s apparent that she is way out of her element. After initial adjustments, her steadfast resolve begins to yield results and her partnership with Lambert starts to point in the right direction. She had a strong rapport with Renner and the two played well off one another thanks to familiarity from their Avengers relationship. The young actress showed she is more than capable of leading the dance. Without the same focus on her background, the character simply isn’t as deep but has a complete arc which she brings to fruition well. Olsen’s was one of the better performances I’ve seen from a lead actress so far this year, but the competition is going to be even stiffer down the stretch and she may wind up on the bubble for Best Actress.  

As I watched this film it felt very much like Hell or High Water (2016), from the landscape cinematography all the way down to the score. Had I done my homework before walking in, the reason for that would have been obvious…they are both Taylor Sheridan films. He wrote the former and penned the screenplay for this film as well as donning the director’s cap this time around. His previous directorial effort back in 2011 was for a little-known horror movie he didn’t write called Vile but in 2015, he wrote the very well received Sicario. Years later, Sheridan has proven that he has become an adept filmmaker with a bold and intricate narrative style which sets him apart from the pack.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis teamed up with Sheridan again to help bring this project to life. The original score for this film isn’t just well done, it’s much deeper contextually. Noticeable almost right away, familiar tones from Cave’s Skeleton Tree album evoke feelings of transcendence and eventuality. This is important because, for those who don’t know, Cave tragically lost one of his twin sons in 2015 while he was working on the album. For those who have listened to it, there is an undeniable gravity in the music and his lyrics. Considering the subject matter of the plot, Cave was the perfect fit to score this film and the esoteric nature of his work makes for a beautiful (albeit painful) union.

The environment has a large role to play throughout the movie as well. The sheer isolation of the reservation in the Wyoming mountains combined with freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions tells a certain story. The harsh living and working conditions speak volumes about the character of its inhabitants. Director of Photography Ben Richardson did a wonderful job capturing the overwhelming emptiness of it all. His landscape photography was well framed to magnify scope and distance in reference to the primary players. With snow in every direction, it’s a constant reminder how the characters are simply small pieces of a much larger puzzle.  

As of now, Wind River is certainly one of the five best films of 2017 and likely to be in contention for Best Picture. However, this is a heavy film…not in a bad way, but it’s a lot to deal with and it’s not for everyone. Aside from the primary mystery being investigated, there are deeper themes about grief and loss throughout the film along with social commentary in regards to the Native American community.

Recommendation: If you’re up for something that will challenge you a little bit, this is your film. This isn’t something you’d take the whole family to see with it’s R rating, but it’s a bit hard to watch in some instances because the nature of the story is graphically violent at times. I’m a little behind the curve thanks to an extended Labor Day weekend, but you might still be able to catch this one in theaters.

Grade: A-