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‘Wind River’ explores a murder mystery in a marginalized community

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Olsen and Renner track a suspect in the frozen wilderness.
Photo: The Welnstein Company / Courtesy

Three and a half stars

Wind River Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene. Directed by Taylor Sheridan. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.

With his screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan established himself as a keen chronicler of the American West, working with directors Denis Villenueve and David Mackenzie to create a modern approach to the Western. Now with Wind River, Sheridan has taken on directing as well, and the result is another finely crafted crime story about people living on the margins of society, with quietly strong performances from Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. As a director, Sheridan doesn’t have the assured visual style of his previous collaborators, telling Wind River’s story in a mostly straightforward, unobtrusive manner. But he serves his own writing well, with a clear, concise approach to the material.

Renner plays Cory Lambert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent in rural Wyoming whose jurisdiction includes the Wind River Indian Reservation, and who has strong family ties to the Native American community. When a Native teen is found dead in the woods, Cory teams up with junior FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen) to solve the young woman’s murder. While the case mostly proceeds along a straight line, Sheridan fills out the story with rich details of life on the reservation and the symbiotic but dysfunctional relationship between local tribes and law enforcement.

Renner and Olsen complement each other effectively as the introverted but deeply compassionate Cory, whose personal history drives his interest in the case, and the resourceful but sometimes overwhelmed Jane, who holds her own alongside the cynical local cops. And while the two main characters are white outsiders, Sheridan also includes multidimensional Native supporting characters, played by Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham and others. For the third time, Sheridan proves himself sensitive to the lives of people who are too often forgotten by society, while building an engrossing, suspenseful genre story around them.

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