Wind River (15)

IN one of the most unforgettable opening sequences this year has had to offer, we see a terrified young Native American woman running bloodied and screaming for her life through the snowy night-time landscape of mountainous Wyoming, readily apparent prey for an unseen killer.

Whilst out on the prowl for the big cats that earn him his living, local veteran game hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) happens across the dead body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) and so begins the mystery of what happened to her and what exactly it means for a community that’s no stranger to tragedy.

Since the body is technically on the federal jurisdiction near the Wind River Indian Reservation, rookie FBI special agent Jane Brenner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent in from the nearest office in Las Vegas to oversee the investigation. She quickly finds herself out of her depth, butting heads with local authorities reticent to officially label the death as a homicide.

This is the first major film directed by Taylor Sheridan, following the little-seen low-budget horror Vile. His name now carries a certain kind of authoritative weight as a strong, uncompromising voice having written the scripts for Oscar nominees Sicario and Hell or High Water. Wind River only solidifies his ability to paint a crime story with wholly compelling brush strokes.

He brilliantly mixes a gripping whodunnit murder mystery framework – it has that effective feeling of the audience doing detective work right alongside the characters – with a stark and oftentimes brutal view of the evils humanity is capable of and the inherent need, however futile it may seem, for people to try and attain justice.

Renner gives his best performance to date as the capable and resolute Cory who is simultaneously weighed down and motivated by the death of his young daughter years prior. Olsen brings emotional stakes that elevate the character beyond the cliché of the rookie agent blindsided by the reality of her investigation taking on an even more sinister form than she first realised.

Sheridan’s film also gives ample room to exploring what the woman’s death means for the Native American community of which she was a part, namely her devastated parents Annie and Martin (beautifully played by Althea Sam and Hell or High Water’s Gil Birmingham) and deep-rooted cultural and racial tensions amplified by the fact that Natalie’s white boyfriend is the prime and only suspect, who is nowhere to be found.

Sparse dialogue and the unmistakable brooding musical tones of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis help lingering emotions fill up the palpable atmosphere in an austere landscape where grasping for cathartic hope battles against a sense of hopeless emptiness amidst a glaring wintery setting, beautifully captured by cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild).

The culmination is an at once bleak, riveting and sobering film that offers no comfortable answers and sends a chilly wind through the bones that’s hard to shake.