Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in Wind River (Fred Hayes/The Weinstein Company)

In the new mystery Wind River, the icy, desolate beauty of the titular Wyoming Native American reservation plays just as important a role as its stars, Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson. The film is something of a throwback to the gritty psychological thrillers of the late nineties, but it also shines a light on the issues of extreme poverty, drug addiction, despair, and sexual violence within a Native American community. It’s something like the plot of Kiss the Girls set in the physical and tonal world of Insomnia. Though Wind River has pretensions to be something of a poor man’s The Silence of the Lambs, it lacks the storytelling scope to approach that level. Still, its themes, performances, and cinematography of the rarified icy beauty of Wyoming make it one of the year’s standout films.

Renner gives one of his best performances as the skillful and relentless Cory Lambert (Renner), a white, stoic game tracker who married into the Wind River Reservation community. He is very good at his job and friendly enough to those he comes into contact with, but it is clear that he is carrying some darkness. We learn that his daughter died in the recent past under suspicious circumstances, her frozen body found in the unforgiving icy plains one morning after a party. History seems to repeat itself when he discovers another young Native American woman, Natalie, frozen to death in an isolated region.

Since this seems to be a clear homicide, Lambert calls in the FBI. The local police chief, Ben (Graham Greene), is glad to have the help and provides key support once the surprisingly young and inexperienced FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen) arrives. It’s clear right away that she will not only need to borrow warmer clothes if she is going to survive but she needs Ben and Cory to show her the lay of the land and introduce her to the people of the reservation.

Despite her youth and inexperience, Banner continually proves her mettle, resolve, and toughness while being humble enough to admit she needs help. After inspecting the body, Cory and Ben figure that the only places the girl could’ve been coming from are the druggie den a few miles away and the oil drilling outpost nearby. One of the tensest moments occurs when Banner accompanies Cory to the home of Natalie’s parent. Her father is grieving, but he has plenty of contempt for Banner as a representative of the federal government. Her mother is too delirious with sadness to even answer any questions, but Banner later encounters her in a shockingly memorable moment that does more to illustrate the extreme despair and suffering taking place on many reservations in the country than almost any other scene.

Unfortunately, the mystery is resolved in a pretty predictable way—there are no twists and turns, like you’d find in any of the crime thrillers that this movie seems to want to share its DNA with. Yet it is still satisfying and worthwhile in its unflinching depiction of how at risk young Native American women can be treated.

In addition to the hauntingly beautiful landscapes depicted in their full glory and the welcome focus on overlooked social justice issues, Renner and Olsen give some of the best performances of their careers. Clearly relishing working together without having to wear funky superhero costumes, they use the chemistry they’ve developed working on Marvel movies to bring depth and humanity to roles that don’t have a ton of meat on the bone. They work together so well that I would welcome their becoming this decade’s new Ashley Judd-Morgan Freeman psychological thriller duo.

Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Released by the Weinstein Company
USA. 107 min. Rated R
With Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Kelsey Asbille,  Julia Jones, Teo Briones, and Apesanahkwat