Reeling it in: Authentic feel to ‘Wind River’

Jeremy Renner, left, and Gil Birmingham in a scene from “Wind River.” (Fred Hayes/The Weinstein Company via AP)

“Wind River”


The Weinstein Company

1 hour, 47 minutes

Jeremy Renner has never been an actor that elicits a huge emotional response. I like him, I guess. I’ve liked most of his movies, at least the ones I’ve seen. He plays Hawkeye in “The Avengers” and, while I like his character in those films a lot, you’re not hearing people clamoring for a “Hawkeye” solo flick. He’s the kind of inoffensive performer that you spend very little time thinking about outside of whatever character he’s playing.

That said, it’s hard for me to think of a movie he’s been in that I didn’t like. Wait — yes, “The Bourne Redundancy.” Was that what it was called? Who cares? The weird spin-off Bourne. That one wasn’t good. But mostly, Renner’s OK in my book.

This week, with his new wilderness murder mystery “Wind River,” Renner’s stock just went up.

The story concerns the investigation into the murder of a young woman on the Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming. Renner’s character, Cory Lambert, is a Predator Control officer for Wyoming Fish and Wildlife. His job is to hunt down coyotes, wolves or mountain lions that harass local livestock. It is with grim irony, then, that while trailing his prey, he comes upon the body of girl, dead from exhaustion and over-exertion in the frigid mountainous landscape. Barefoot, badly beaten, and six miles from the nearest outpost of civilization, foul play seems obvious.

The local law enforcement, a depressingly understaffed Tribal Police force, calls for assistance from the FBI, who arrives in the person of Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Banner, in typical movie fashion, is relatively new to the job, and ill-prepared for the weather and terrain she’ll face. In addition, she’s alone. Unable to call for back-up due to the fact that the medical examiner won’t declare the death a homicide (she died from the run, not her injuries), it’s up to Banner and Lambert to work the case to its logical conclusion.

In many ways, “Wind River” is a very straightforward, typical genre film. Murder mystery, fish out of water, unlikely partnership, surprise villain. You’ve seen this movie. If I remember right, Val Kilmer made a very similar movie about 20 years ago called “Thunderheart.”

What makes this film special, however, is a combination of the script and the performances. The word that kept coming back to me was “authentic.” The film feels real. The actors, in their various roles, are all entirely believable. That takes a subtle script and a confident director.

You can tell writer/director Taylor Sheridan is the real deal because all the performances, from the largest to the smallest all have that sense of being true. Not true as in documentary style veritas, maybe — this is still a slick Hollywood film — but true to the area and to the story it’s telling.

It’s also very economical. Nothing feels extraneous or wasted. Though this is Sheridan’s first major directing job, you can see the same kind of authenticity in his scripts for “Hell or High Water,” and “Sicario” — two excellent films in their own right.

Though I like Elizabeth Olsen fine (also an Avenger, I might add) I was particularly taken with Renner in this film. Finally he feels like he’s broken free of his particular brand of pleasing blandness and turned in a really powerful, emotional performance. Never bombastic, Lambert is a quiet, thoughtful guy, but with a determinedly friendly air about him, disguising a deep, deep hurt.

Actually, Renner’s performance really reminded me of a good friend of mine — a guy who always takes my kids fishing and calls all the boys “bud.” Whether it was that particular familiarity, or the fact that this film will seem especially relevant to Alaskans, “Wind River” feels like home in some ways. Not all of those ways are good, but so much of the movie was reminiscent of the kind of lives people often live in this state, I couldn’t help but make the comparison.

I did have a few problems with the film. For one, the resolution of the mystery is somewhat dissatisfying, if only from a logic standpoint. So much of this film feels so true, and the actions of the villain didn’t really have that same feeling.

Also, the film finishes with a coda about the fact that Native American women go missing at an alarming rate and that it is criminally under reported. A valid and worthy point, but not really one that has anything to do with the movie, where the crime seems very specific and has more implications into just general violence against women, than it does with Native women in particular.

That said, I really enjoyed this movie. It’s rough in parts — no doubt about it — but if you can stand it, it’s definitely worth the ride. Grade: A

“Wind River” is rated R for language and graphic violence including sexual assault.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.