TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new movie "Wind River," a mystery thriller set in Wyoming's Native American reservation of the same name. It was written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who began his career as an actor and was a regular on the TV series "Veronica Mars" and "Sons Of Anarchy." His first produced screenplay was the 2015 hit "Sicario," followed last year by the Oscar-nominated "Hell Or High Water." His new film stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: On the evidence of his movies, the screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has a strong social conscience. And he packs his convictions about income inequality, racism and government oppression into bloody pulp thrillers with a chance of reaching a mainstream audience - "Sicario," "Hell Or High Water" and now "Wind River," which is also his directorial debut. The new film is not, alas, up to the other two. It's talky. It's clumsily plotted. And there's a questionable piece of casting, but it hits home. It turns out, his passion and keen grasp of genre conventions can compensate for all kinds of missteps.
The film's setting is Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, where impoverished Native Americans struggle with staggering rates of crime and drug addiction. It's where Fish and Wildlife ranger Cory Lambert, played by Jeremy Renner, goes hunting for a big cat that's been plaguing ranchers and finds the frozen body of a young Native American woman. A short time later, he accepts the offer of a lone, inexperienced FBI agent named Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen, to help navigate the inhospitable countryside. Partly, he joins her because the young woman was the daughter of his close friend Martin, played by Gil Birmingham. Partly, it's because he lost his own daughter, who was half Native American, to crime on what they call the res (ph). Few scenes in "Wind River" are as grim as the one in which Lambert and Banner travel by snowmobile to the young woman's body.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIND RIVER")
JEREMY RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) Look right here. See this one? See how the toe's turned out and the front is much deeper than the back? That's 'cause she was running. Come here. Let me show you. She ran until she dropped here. See the pool of blood where her face hit the snow? Now, look; it's 20 below here at night. So if you fill your lungs up with that cold air and you're running, you could freeze them up. Your lungs fill up with blood. You start coughing it up. So wherever she came from, she ran all the way here. Her lungs burst here. She curled up in that tree line and drowned in her own blood.
ELIZABETH OLSEN: (As Jane Banner) Well, how far do you think someone can run barefoot out here?
RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) Oh, I don't know. How do you gauge someone's will to live, especially in these conditions? I knew that girl. She's a fighter. So no matter how far you think she ran, I can guarantee you she ran further.
EDELSTEIN: That's a haunting exchange, but Taylor Sheridan on the whole is not a particularly judicious director of his own material. He not only permits himself to overwrite, but he shoots what he overwrites on the nose with none of the artful distancing of his last two directors - Denis Villeneuve, who gave "Sicario" a feverish palate, and David Mackenzie, who brought a classical Western grandeur to "Hell Or High Water." A scene in which Lambert counsels Martin on how to grieve for his daughter brings the film to a dead halt and seems bizarre given the fact that Martin has just gotten the terrible news.
As for Elizabeth Olsen, I think she's capable of terrific things. She played Juliet in the worst professional Shakespeare production I've ever seen, and she was good. She's good here too, but she looks so incongruously juvenile in her FBI jacket that it's a painful reminder of Hollywood star-casting mandates. Fortunately, the setting itself dispels that whiff of Hollywood. The frozen landscape seems corrosive, its vastness out of scale with the dilapidated dwellings and haggard people, men and women who've given up hope, teenagers visibly addled by meth and opiates and the atmosphere of malign neglect.
As Sheridan was moved by stories of Texas foreclosures to write "Hell Or High Water," he came to "Wind River" after reading about the brutal unsolved killings on this reservation. A 2012 New York Times feature on the murder epidemic said residents could expect to live 49 years. Unemployment that year was higher than 80 percent versus 6 percent in the rest of Wyoming. When he doesn't have unwieldy speeches, Jeremy Renner conveys helplessness and grief eloquently. And Gil Bermingham, who is also in "Hell Or High Water," is very fine as the father immobilized by rage. So is the rest of the cast, which includes Native Americans and Graham Greene, who's Oneonta and Canadian. Although the resolution to the mystery wouldn't do credit to a third-rate thriller, it's crazily powerful, sodden and bloody but with no real catharsis, just a sense of waste and a feeling of, what now?
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with former Vice President Al Gore, check out our podcast, where you'll you find lots of interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE VAMPIRES' "HARD LOVE")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE VAMPIRES' "HARD LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.