Sundance Film Review: The intense “Wind River”

Jeremy Renner treks through the snow in “Wind River,” one of the better films I saw at Sundance. (Photo courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival)

I managed to squeeze in quite a few movies while at the Sundance Film Festival. I’ll be posting short reviews of some of the films — along with a web series I absolutely adore — in the coming weeks.

First up, “Wind River.”

Taylor Sheridan is an upstart around Hollywood, a rugged-looking guy who got his start as an actor and has since leapt into the big leagues based on the topical, highly quotable  neo-noir scripts he writes. With just two high-profile screenplays —  2015’s bleak drug cartel thriller “Sicario” and 2016’s out-to-beat-the-system bankrobber thriller “Hell or High Water” — which earned him a most deserved Oscar nomination — Sheridan has attained a mercurial star status that few screenwriter ever attain. If his name gets attached to a film, studio bigwigs along with audiences, notice and get onboard.

So it’s not exactly a surprise that the audacious, restless-seeming Sheridan decided to try his hand at directing, a common but sometimes treacherous path actors and screenwriters take. Historically, the results have been hit or miss, with some standouts  —  Ron Howard  and the late Ida Lupino — receiving praise for their efforts  and others, including Ryan (“Lost River”) Gosling and Nicolas  (“Sonny”) Cage, greeted by bad reviews.

With his violent and intensely absorbing thriller “Wind River,” Sheridan reveals he’s a very good director indeed.

His debut, starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, received a well-deserved standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival screening I attended, ushering in the arrival of a director with his own distinctive tough-guy vision.

Sheridan’s murder tale is a grabber from the start. It takes place on a Wyoming Native American reservation (Park City, Utah, subbing for it),  a setting that presents the metaphorically inclined writer/director fertile terrain to explore.

Of the cast, Renner stands out as  Cory Lambert, a Fish and Game agent  haunted by the killing of his daughter and now investigating  the murder/rape of a teen-aged Native American whose brutalized corpse he has found in the snow.. Cory joins forces with the fish-out-of-water FBI rookie Jane Banner (Olsen) as the duo and the reservation’s police chief (scene-stealer Graham Greene) unsnarl a tangled web that becomes ever more horrific as the layers get peeled back.

Sheridan expertly creates the environment, and we feel the cold.  As both writer and director, he also slowly builds  on the tension. This gradual approach is a smart move, allowing for heightened character development and an opportunity to powerfully explore the grief many are experiencing.  But don’t think the calculated pace means the film isn’t gritty; the final act is particularly brutal.

The biggest complaint I had with “Wind River” is Olsen’s conventional, rather one-note  FBI character. Her Jane is typically ill-equipped for this assignment and comes across clueless at the start. Since she’s the main female character, I wish she would have been more interesting and less obvious.

Renner’s character, though, is better defined. The versatile Renner taps knowingly into Cory’s never-ending grief along  with his unwavering resolve to mete out justice for a family grappling with a tragedy he understands too well. It’s a restrained performance, one of Renner’s best, in a thriller that further cements the actor’s reputation and Sheridan’s as well.

Sheridan makes the transition to director easily, and the result is one of the more ambitious, engrossing  thrillers in recent memory. You won’t want to miss it.

“Wind River”

3 out of 4 stars

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham

Director and writer: Taylor Sheridan

Running Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Rating: R (for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language)