‘Shouldn’t we wait for backup?’ ‘This isn’t the land of backup, Jane … this is the land of “you’re on your own”.’
Cowboy noir movies – Hell or High Water, Cold in July, etc. – tend to favour sun-baked landscapes and sunburned characters, but this Wyoming-set drama of close-lipped men and brutal outbursts goes with snowy wastes instead. The Wind River reservation is where the Arapaho were forced to settle, and now it’s all snow and silence … and a slow slide into petty criminality, drink and drugs. Only smart young women have a chance to get off the Res, and their ambitions tend to be curtailed by rape and murder. Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) is found dead after having run six miles barefoot in the snow, and FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is despatched from Las Vegas without the appropriate footwear (or thermals) because murder on the reservation is a federal matter … even if technically the victim died from exposure running away from abuse rather than homicide. The notional local head of the investigation is tribal policeman Ben (Graham Greene), but the tenderfoot fed finds herself partnering with game warden Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who specialises in hunting predators and is already on the tracks of a family group of lions which has been picking off the livestock. Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham) quietly assumes that Cory will treat his daughter’s killer or killers the way he does lions – by simple extermination. And Cory is still grieving for his own daughter, killed in similar circumstances a year earlier.
For all the Cowboys and Indians echoes, this also feels like an American take on the scandi-noir vogue – a frozen dead woman who has died in unusual circumstances, another corpse showing up in the snow, a savvy but alien female investigator from outside, a grizzled and aching local man with a gun, and bursts of gunplay (these lawfolk can’t make a routine call without being shot at and killing a lowlife who wasn’t even a real suspect). Even the miserably alcoholic louts bristling for a fight could as easily be Norwegian or Swedish foulups as redneck oilmen. Writer-director Taylor Sheridan – seriously upping his game after directing the aptly-named FrightFest offering Vile (which he didn’t write – he has script credits on Sicario and Hell or High Water) – sets the story off along familiar lines, but defies expectations by having characters go off on tangents and ultimately solving the mystery in a tumble of flashback (featuring broody cameos from Jon Bernthal and James Jordan) rather than through detective work. Indeed, the original crime turns out to be blundering stupidity that gets appallingly out of hand rather than the work of a meticulous serial killer, even if the after-effects run to an escalating bodycount and a just desserts sequence that evokes the grim punchline of Mad Max.
It suffers from the not-unfamiliar tendency to privilege male self-pity over female pain and death … with Renner persuasive as the eaten-up-inside hero who couldn’t protect his actual or symbolic daughters and now has to ride the vengeance trail on a snowmobile. The victims are at once idealised and disposable, with even the FBI woman sidelined and repeatedly shown up – admittedly, after generations of super-competent women in thrillers who do their jobs better than complacent men, it’s almost a twist to have Jane be as clueless as she is – all the better to highlight the hero. However, if it’s an exercise in male angst at least it’s a tactful and powerful one – the scenes between Cory and Martin, who at first seems stoic to the point of not caring but actually pours forth emotionally when with someone he knows, are terrific and Renner gets to do some Robert Mitchum-style man-in-the-wilderness business (there’s an echo thematically and visually of Track of the Cat, another snowy big cat western) in the tracking and shooting-from-cover scenes. It’s also a harsh, rugged, beautiful landscape movie.