The box office has been in a bad place lately. Last week didn’t bring much in the way of new wide releases other than the pathetic “Leap!” This week there were no new wide releases at all. Nada. Nothing wanted to open on Labor Day weekend. This lack of competition allowed the slowly-growing “Wind River” to mosey its way into the Top 3 at the weekend box office. The movie isn’t some skyrocketing small-time gem, but it’s one of the better options from the doldrums of August.
Jeremy Renner plays Corey Lambert, a professional animal tracker and hunter for an Indian reservation in Wyoming who gets drawn into a murder investigation. The problem is that it’s not officially a murder. The victim, a teenage girl, ran barefoot into the unforgiving wilderness following a sexual assault and succumbed to the elements. Someone is responsible for the girl’s death, but the technicality means that all the FBI is willing to do is send rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Banner is the very definition of “out of her element.” She’s not dressed for extreme cold, she’s never been on a snowmobile before, she’s tactless when talking to the victim’s family, and she doesn’t understand the local emphasis on self-reliance. She needs help from Lambert, whose own teenage daughter was killed a few years ago. He agrees to help, putting him on a rare hunt for a human.
The real star of the movie isn’t Renner or Olsen, but the setting. This is a place that will eat you alive if you let it, and I’m not just saying that because of the wolves and coyotes, though you have to watch out for them too. The terrain downright deadly, certainly beautiful as a portrait of unspoiled nature, but terrifying to someone who pines for the comfort of civilization. It’s the wrong place to be in need of a hospital or police station. As for the people, the average ones aren’t exactly kill-happy, but compassion is not a given with them. Why should they help you when they spend their days getting beaten down by the very land they call home?
The movie is about a hunt for a killer, but there’s surprisingly little mystery here. Lambert and Banner figure that the victim’s boyfriend must be involved, and the investigation turns into a search for him. Lambert and Banner have to turn over the reservation just to get the guy’s name, first questioning the victim’s distraught father (Gil Birmingham), then her drug-addict brother (Martin Sensmeier) who gets them into a shootout. Eventually they go on a seemingly harmless visit to confirm information that gets them into another shootout because someone panics. The idea is that we’re supposed to focus on the characters and what they learn about each other while pursuing the murderer rather than the actual identity of the murderer. But this is a pretty compact movie and I say there should have been time to both develop the characters and throw some twists and turns and more than one suspect into the investigation.
“Wind River” has the makings of an exciting thriller, but it doesn’t quite pull it off. Most of the performances are engaging, from Renner to Birmingham to Graham Greene as a wry local police chief to Jon Bernthal as… let’s call it a mystery role. But Olsen is troublesome. I get that the character is inexperienced, but she’s so incompetent that I wonder how she ever got to be an FBI agent. I was actually rooting for her to not solve the mystery because that would mean her incompetence paid off. Then there’s the matter of the investigation concluding abruptly with characters we meet at the last minute. But we do get a nice climactic scene on a mountaintop with Renner and person of interest. “Wind River” is a good movie that could have been better, but it’s worthy of its minor box office success.