Humans are social beings, hard-wired to interact with others as a fundamental part of existence. Yet the new movie “Wind River” offers an intriguing exploration of just how badly things can go awry when people are cut off from others by geographical and economic forces beyond their control. 

A slow-burning thriller set amid the harshly cold and endless expanses of the titular Native American reservation in Wyoming, the film stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a game tracker for the US Fish and Wildlife Service who stumbles across the frozen corpse of a teenage girl in the mountains. When he makes a call for investigative support, the FBI sends in Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), an agent from its nearest outpost in Las Vegas who finds herself completely out of her depth.

Cory is used to tracking and killing coyotes and mountain lions when they eat too many of the local horses and cattle, but finding a human killer is another story. Meanwhile, Jane arrives amid a raging snowstorm with nothing but a windbreaker to protect her from the cold and sporting thong rather than thermal underwear.

Jane knows that the only way she will be allowed to expand the federal investigation is if the death is ruled a homicide, and the ruling seems obvious due to the victim’s bloody mouth and telltale signs of a group sexual assault. Yet bureaucratic loopholes prohibit the medical examiner from making a clear call, so she asks Ben to force a ruling and enlists Cory to help her navigate the area.

What she doesn’t realize is that Cory has his own sad, extra incentive for finding the killer: he knows the dead girl was named Natalie, and she was the best friend of his own daughter, who died mysteriously three years before. As they dig deeper amid the reservation’s socioeconomically desperate inhabitants, Jane comes to realize that she has entered a world in which sadness seems to know no limits.

Writer-director Taylor Sheridan was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay on last year’s superb modern Western “Hell or High Water,” which followed two economically stressed Caucasian brothers as they engaged in a string of bank robberies across small-town Texas in order to save their ranch. He flips the script here to show the Native American side of life in the West, and again creates a fully absorbing setting that is made all the more intriguing by the fact it is one rarely seen onscreen.

Everyone Cory and Jane encounter lives in a trailer or tiny house, while Ben informs her that the young men on the reservation often pursue drugs and crime because a prison cell offers a more stable existence than the one in which they are already trapped. The women have it even worse, overlooked by nearly everyone around them — meaning Jane faces the additional challenge of the residents’ cultural bias against strong females.

Sheridan doles out his reveals sparingly, a quality that should maintain viewer interest throughout since he doesn’t fall into the common trap of giving away too many clues early on. When he finally uncoils the tension in a pair of explosive showdowns, the effect is gasp-inducing.

Against these stark circumstances, Renner and Olsen deliver what might be the best performances of their careers. Both are masters of subtlety here, as they attempt to maintain strong exteriors to match the hard-bitten personalities of the people around them while slowly breaking down on the inside.

Yet, even at its darkest moments, the film has glimmers of humanity that offer a sense of hard-won hope. For those who enjoy some emotional chill amid the overheated blockbusters of summer, “Wind River” will fit the bill. Grade: A 

 

Capsule Reviews

INGRID GOES WEST

Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr.

Length: 97 minutes

Directed by: Matt Spicer

Rating: R

A wicked satire of our selfie and Instagram-obsessed culture, “Ingrid” features a knockout performance by indie comedy goddess Plaza as a woman who uses a $60,000 inheritance to move to LA and stalk an online celebrity (Olsen) with an equally vacuous existence. Its sharp bite packs an extra punch when it takes a surprisingly moving turn.    Grade: A

GOOD TIME

Stars: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Length: 100 minutes

Directed by: Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie

Rating: R

Robert Pattinson breaks out of his teen-idol “Twilight” days for good with his riveting performance as a bank robber who will go to any amoral length imaginable to rescue his mentally disabled brother from police custody after a heist gone wrong. But the film is so unrelentingly scuzzy it becomes annoying, leaving the audience no one to root for.  Grade: C

DETROIT

Stars: John Boyega, Algee Smith, Will Poulter

Length: 143 minutes

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Rating: R

Depicting the horrifying physical and psychological abuse perpetrated by a trio of white police officers against a group of African-Americans at the Algiers Motel amid the infamous 1967 riots in Detroit, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) has crafted a well-made but often hard to watch reminder of the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely.   Grade: A

ATOMIC BLONDE

Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: David Leitch

Rating: R

The hugely fun “Blonde” places Theron in Jane Bond mode as a ruthless British super-spy who goes undercover to Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall to retrieve a list of Western intel assets from Communist agents. But the sometimes-confusing plot is secondary to nonstop action in which Theron impressively wipes out anyone who gets near with fists, kicks and all sorts of weapons. Grade: B

DUNKIRK

Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy

Length: 107 minutes

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Rating: PG-13

The story of how thousands of citizens and some brave pilots rallied to save endangered troops from the English Channel after WWII’s devastating Battle of Dunkirk immerses viewers in the heart of the action via masterful camerawork and sound. Writer-director Christopher Nolan upends war movie cliches by making it more about the overall experience than individual heroes.  Grade: A

THE BIG SICK

Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Zoe Kazan

Length: 124 minutes

Directed by: Michael Showalter

Rating: R

Starring rising comedy star Nanjiani as a younger version of himself, “Sick” deals with the struggles he and his wife encountered early in their relationship when she endured a medically induced coma and he was caught between pressure from both sets of their parents. Managing to find strong laughs and warm emotion in a fresh twist on romantic dramedies, it’s a winner. Grade: A