A subdued Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a Wyoming-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer who becomes involved in investigating the murder of a Native American teenager, whose body he finds in a snow-covered field. The young woman has been shot and sexually violated.
Olsen's Jane Banner, a newly minted FBI agent, arrives in Wyoming to figure out exactly what happened to the dead girl (Kelsey Asbille), a resident of the grimly impoverished Wind River reservation.
The screenplay puts Cory in a difficult spot. He knows the terrain and he knew the dead girl. Unlike the outsider played by Olsen, Cory has long-standing relationships in the Native American community. He had been married to a woman from the Wind River Reservation (Julia Jones), but their relationship ended in divorce after the disappearance and death of their daughter.
Obviously, Cory can't look into the death of another young woman without confronting the burden of grief and guilt that he carries with him. He couldn't protect his daughter from the sometimes lethal hostilities directed toward Native American women.
Sheridan wrote the screenplays for two better movies -- Sicario and Hell or High Water. This time, he creates a story that wallows in the dour resolve of men accustomed to suppressing anger and pain. Many of the characters seem to have accepted injustice as part of the fabric of a world that, for them, long ago slipped beyond redemption.
Only the town's sheriff (Graham Greene) shows splashes of humor, but it's of the deadpan variety, and the movie's snowbound landscapes add to the feeling of emotional desolation.
A skilled tracker, Cory spends most of his time hunting animals that prey on sheep and cattle. He wears a snowsuit to protect him from lethally cold temperatures. (The movie actually was shot in Utah, so if you've been to Lander, Wyo., where some of the movie supposedly takes place, don't be surprised if you feel a bit disoriented.)
Scenes between Cory and his young son and those between Cory and his estranged wife add humanity, as do scenes in which Cory meets with the father (Gil Birmingham) of the dead teenager. Such moments suggest that Wind River might have been more affecting had it spent even more time with the dead girl's shattered family.
Olsen, so good in Martha Marcy May Marlene -- isn't able to bring much depth to a character who makes up half of a cliché; she plays novice cop to Renner's savvy frontiersman.
Sheridan shows some of the physical and emotional impoverishment of life on the reservation. Wintry atmospherics and pervasive gloom almost become characters in a story that ultimately succumbs to a burst of extreme violence.
This finale involves a flashback and a shoot-out that overwhelms some of the movie's earlier observational insights. A final title card about the disappearance of Native American women from reservations -- evidently a widespread a problem -- struck me as too little, too late, almost an apology for the violent crescendo that preceded it.
A 2012 New York Times article about the Wind River Reservation, provides a better feel for life on what the locals call "the res." The article notes that, at the time of its writing, those living in Wind River had a shorter life expectancy than the inhabitants of war-torn Iraq.
The story also attributes the following quote to a tribal advocate:
"This place has always had the gloom here. There has always been the horrendous murder. There has always been the white-Indian tension It's always been something."
To his credit, Sheridan captures some of that feeling, but in the end, the sound of gunfire drowns out the cries of characters whose lot in life seems to demand that they find ways to bear the unbearable.