In its terse, gritty way, “Hell or High Water” was one of last year’s happier surprises. How happy? It earned four Oscar nominations, including best picture and best original screenplay. Taylor Sheridan did the script. Now he makes his directorial debut with “Wind River,” which he also wrote.
A particularly nasty murder has taken place on a Wyoming Indian reservation. An untested FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) has been called in to investigate. She’s assisted by a Fish and Wildlife Service tracker (Jeremy Renner), who discovered the body, and the local sheriff (Graham Greene), who gets the few bleakly funny lines. All three actors are excellent. So’s Gil Birmingham, as the victim’s father.
That Sheridan is good with performers makes sense. He began his writing career with “Sicario” (2015) — Emily Blunt’s embattled DEA agent there bears more than a passing vocational resemblance to Olsen’s character here — but previously he made his living as an actor (“Veronica Mars,” “Sons of Anarchy”).
That said, the title tells you where to look for the richest performance in “Wind River.” It’s the terrain. The most important character in “Hell or High Water” was the flat, arid emptiness of Texas and Oklahoma. Here it’s the even emptier vastness of Wyoming and the unrelenting menace posed by winter weather. There’s a near-constant tension in “Wind River,” and it’s nearly as much meteorological as emotional. It’s meteorology as emotion.
Renner looks right at home in this landscape. Has any Hollywood star since James Cagney had a face that’s more interesting (which is to say unusual)? It’s squarish and slightly squashed, like a spring you keep expecting to uncoil. A ten-gallon hat doesn’t look funny on him; it just adds to the squarishness.
The hat also reminds you that “Wind River” is a modern-day western. So was “Hell or High Water.” That movie was about Texas Rangers and bank robbers. It’s just that the source of horsepower had changed. “Wind River” is cowboys and Indians — remember, it’s set on a reservation — though not in any traditional sense. Who’s good and who’s bad has nothing to do with race and everything to do with the exercise of power. The still-ruinous treatment of Native Americans hangs over the movie like one of those immense storm clouds. “Wind River” is as much about mourning as murder.
Sheridan’s heart is clearly in the right place. But one of his film’s two chief weaknesses is that Renner is in effect playing that tried-and-true (and tired) type: the great white hunter. The emphasis is definitely on white, even with Renner’s ex-wife being Indian. The actor’s being so unlike a standard leading man undercuts the stereotype some. Still, it’s there.
The other weakness is authorial — or should that be auteurial? For both better and worse, screenwriters have to answer to directors. Once budgets have been approved, writer-directors answer to no one. That can encourage self-indulgence, in a first-timer especially. Sheridan knows his way around structure and writes a naturally spare dialogue. But sometimes here he can get a mite portentous. “Luck’s in the city,” Renner tells Olsen (she’s from Fort Lauderdale, via Las Vegas, a nice touch). “It doesn’t live out here.” He’d already told her “I know you’re looking for clues, but you’re missing all the signs.” He’s not only great white hunter. He’s man of the West and big daddy hunter, too.
Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham. At Kendall Square. 111 minutes. R (strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, language ).Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.