When it comes to Wind River, the story is okay. What makes it worth a look is its setting, its characters and how they relate to each other. It's a rather dark and depressing reflection of the ongoing despicable American treatment of Native people. Its central character, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), works as a tracking hunter on a reservation, for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In a way you could call Wind River a modern take on cowboys and Indians. The long history of government neglect is unsubtly hinted at; the fact that this neglect followed outright genocide never mentioned. The fact that the tortured hero of this story is a white man is problematic at best, his ex-wife and the father of his daughter's best friend being Native the Hollywood script version of "Some of my best friends are Indians." Surely there are plenty of worthy stories to tell in which the heroes are Native?
But, okay, let's just resign ourselves to that framework, then. Wind River features multiple strong female characters, although predictably the one with the greatest focus is a white one, FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). She's brought in to investigate the killing of a teenage girl Cory has found dead in the snow, miles from any homes, while out tracking and hunting mountain lions. Local farmers hire Cory to hunt predators who are attacking their livestock.
The victim is a young Native American woman, who happened to have been best friends with Cory's daughter, who herself died under vaguely similar circumstances three years ago. Her name is Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), and she is the first character we see, in a striking image of her running for her life through the snow toward the mountains in the moonlight -- until she collapses. We later see her in flashback. We see her mother too, but only briefly, and with no lines of dialogue.
There are several Native American actors featured, at least. Natalie's father is played by longtime character actor Gil Birmingham (perhaps best known from the Twilight saga); and the ranking reservation law enforcement officer is played by Dances with Wolves's Graham Greene. Several of the supporting parts are also played by Native actors, which writer-director Taylor Sheridan was very deliberate about in casting. It does give the story an extra weight it would not otherwise have.
Whatever its imperfections -- Sheridan also wrote, but did not direct, both Sicario and Hell or High Water, each of which were among the best films of the past two years -- Wind River nicely rounds out Sheridan's trilogy of American Frontier films. Each of them examines a different, very specific intersection of American cultures, and all are worth the time. Wind River is maybe slightly less compelling in story execution, but it still has something to say that needs to be heard. How many people know that Native American women are the only demographic group for which numbers of missing persons are not tallied? That's insane.
That said, Wind River isn't exactly a good time -- although you wouldn't quite say the same of Taylor Sheridan's other films either. This is only Sheridan's second feature film as a director, and he is less assured as a director than as a writer. It makes this movie worthy, but not vital. It sticks with you, challenging its audience in respectable ways, while remaining beholden to certain Hollywood tropes in other ways. The story is well constructed, tense, and often gripping. It offers a slice of American life that gets far too little attention. If it weren't for its typical presentation through the eyes of white heroes, it could have been a great movie rather than merely a very good one.