Near-masterpiece 'Wind River' blends poetic dialogue, brutal violence

ROEPER: Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen strike pitch-perfect notes as unlikely partners in the Western thriller.

Just about everyone in “Wind River,” animal or human, is hunter or prey.

Wolves attack sheep. Mountain lions prey on steer. A hunter aims his rifle at the wolves and the mountain lions, at the behest of ranchers looking to save their livelihood.

Humans prey on other humans, savagely attacking them and leaving them dead in the cold.

Hunters with uniforms and badges and weapons try to track down those predators and bring them to justice, and that doesn’t necessarily mean cuffing them, reading them their rights and taking them into custody.

Writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River” is a stark and beautiful and haunting 21st century Western thriller, filled with memorable visuals and poetic dialogue — and scenes of sudden, shocking, brutal violence.

At times it reminded me of “No Country for Old Men” and “Winter’s Bone” and last year’s “Hell or High Water,” and (in the case of one character) it had me thinking about “The Silence of the Lambs” — but this near-masterpiece of mood and character study stands on its own as one of the very best movies I’ve seen this decade.

Jeremy Renner doesn’t have the widest range in the game; his go-to onscreen persona is squarely in the Stoic Leading Man Zone populated by the likes of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. But few modern actors can match Renner’s ability to play true grit, which makes the occasional moment of letting down his guard that much more effective.

In “Wind River,” Renner is a quietly commanding presence as Cory Lambert, an agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service who knows practically every snow-covered square foot of the Wyoming territory he covers.

Cory grew up in this region and married a Native American woman named Wilma (Julia Jones). They had two children. They are no longer together, for reasons we need not reveal.

We know from the prologue something horrible happened to a young woman that places her deep in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night, desperately running for her life in the sub-zero cold before her lungs give out and she collapses.

But before we circle back to that event, we see Cory on the job, patiently waiting in the snow before gunning down the wolves preying on a rancher’s herd of sheep. We see Cory’s respectful but tense interactions with his ex-wife. We see the tender side of Cory, as he teaches his young son Casey (Teo Briones) how to bond with a horse.

It’s lovely and relatively quiet material — but we have that opening scene lingering in our memories, and there’s something about Sheridan’s dialogue, and the cinematography by Ben Richardson, and the score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, that permeates even the most innocuous scenes with an air of tension and impending doom.

We learn the girl in the snow is Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a Native American teenager who was best friends with Cory’s daughter. It appears as if she’s been assaulted and murdered.

Because the body was found on the Wind River reservation, the tribal police and the feds are brought in. A perfectly deadpan Graham Greene plays Ben, the local tribal police chief, while the “feds” are actually just one fed: the Las Vegas-based agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a smart but inexperienced investigator who arrives wearing heels and fashionable pants and blouse.

Jane is ostensibly in charge of the investigation, but she’s savvy enough to realize she needs Ben and especially Cory to navigate the case in more ways than one. (The screenplay for “Wind River” deftly sidesteps clichéd scenarios such as the cynical local authorities mocking Jane’s naivete, or Cory and Jane bickering with each other before tumbling into bed.)

The timeline for “Wind River” shifts on occasion, always with graceful editing that serves the story. Kelsey Asbille as Natalie and Jon Bernthal as her older boyfriend Matt appear onscreen in a relatively brief but vitally important flashback sequence, and their performances are heartbreakingly effective.

Gil Birmingham, so good as Jeff Bridges’ partner in “Hell or High Water” (also written by Sheridan), is magnificent as Natalie’s grieving father. Birmingham’s two major scenes with Renner are unforgettable.

Renner and Elizabeth Olsen strike pitch-perfect notes as unlikely partners who forge a deep bond of mutual respect. A scene in which Cory unburdens himself to Jane is masterful.

For all the character studies and moments of reflection and lament, “Wind River” never loses its identity as a gritty thriller. The bursts of gunfire are fast and furious and sometimes unexpected, adding to the power of such sequences.

Taylor Sheridan started as an actor, doing fine work on TV shows such as “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

Sheridan now has three screenplays to his credit: “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River.”

That’s three home runs, three years in a row.

★★★★

The Weinstein Co. presents a film written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. Rated R (for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language.). Running time: 111 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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