Sight-unseen, my expectation (not unfairly, I think) was that Wind River would be a terrific screenplay with undistinguished directing holding it back. After all, the screenplay was by Taylor Sheridan, whose first film as writer was 2015's excellent Sicario, and whose second was 2016's sturdy, elegantly classical Hell or High Water. And the direction is also by Sheridan, whose only previous work in that capacity was the 2011 torture film Vile, which neither I nor anybody else I've ever heard of has seen. But it is a torture film called Vile, and I think we can make some perfectly fair assumptions about its quality, based on that.

In the event, I had things exactly wrong. Wind River is an impressive triumph of direction in every important sense: the performances are all carefully pointed in the same direction (with one huge exception that we'll get to), the pacing is exquisite, crawling slowly before bursting into flurries of activity, the camera angles are extremely well-chosen and the editing patterns suitably shift between those angles, and leading off from that, the crew heads - cinematographer Ben Richardson and editor Gary D. Roach, in those cases - are all doing sturdy, if not exactly showy work. And that balance of sturdy but not showy was exactly where Hell or High Water lived, and it does seem, I'm happy to say, that Sheridan learned all the right lessons from watching David Mackenzie's work on that film.

Meanwhile, Wind River has a screenplay that sometimes rises up to the level of "pro forma murder mystery", sometimes doesn't, and either way ends up hanging itself on a truly godawful climax that commits two different sins, either one of which could potentially be fatal. Sheridan's script was based on a true story, which undoubtedly pinned him down somewhat in terms of what he could and could not do, but there is some brutally clunky structure happening in those last 25 minutes or so of the film. And compared to the clear thematic urgency of the writer's last two produced screenplays, Wind River doesn't seem to know what it's even about. Sometimes, it seems to be a story about the continued maltreatment of Native Americans even into the 21st Century; sometimes it seems to be about the unending cycle of violence against women. A concluding title card rather optimistically tries to force us to believe that it has all along been about the confluence of those two things. And more's the pity that the film isn't particularly good any of them.

What it is good at is playing into the material of the Great American Western: the tale of a solitary man trying his best to live in quiet commune with the mountains of Wyoming, and trying his best to be a decent person to the family and colleagues he passes by on the way. The man in question is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a hunter and tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; in civilian life, he's the father of Casey (Teo Briones), whom he tries to raise with a healthy respect for the natural world, with the cordial support of his ex-wife Wilma (Julia Jones), a Native woman living just outside of the Wind River reservation, where her family still resides. It is, in fact, a trip to see his ex-father-in-law Dan (Apesanahkwat) that kicks Lambert's story into motion: Dan has been having a mountain lion problem, and Lambert's journey into the snowy woods to find and kill the animal leads him right to the body of a 19-year-old woman, beaten and raped before she died of exposure (the film opens with her running in terror through the night).

And just like that, we've got a murder mystery on our hands, though one in which jurisdictional problems and the U.S. government's indifference to whatever the hell happens on Indian reservations are more of a factor than the twists and turns of the murderers. The case belongs to Ben (Graham Greene), Tribal Police Chief of Wind River, though the six-man department he has to police the seventh-largest reservation in the United States is wholly unable to meet the demands of a murder investigation. The FBI sends nobody but the enormously green and untested Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), self-evidently hoping that she'll come back with a report that this case falls outside of Federal jurisdiction. And this pretty much leaves Lambert stuck in charge of the investigation whether he wants it or not. Not that we ever learn about what he wants: he deals with it because it has to be dealt with, and because dealing with it lets him work through the leftover feelings he has about his own teenage daughter who died of exposure, apparently not very long ago.

So let me make this part clear: I don't think it's at all Olsen's fault that her character is a gaping chest wound that threatens to ruin Wind River long before it actually shoots itself in the foot. She plays the role of an untried Fed with insufficient knowledge about the world she's entering with aplomb, exuding a slight sense of nervous confusion that only manifests around her eyes, and the way she tenses her upper body. It's a very fine, effective performance of a character that shouldn't be used the way Sheridan uses her. For one thing, he keeps oddly shifting the weight of scenes, both in dialogue exchanges and in camera angles, to favor Banner as the audience's POV character, which is a decision that simply can't be justified on any level. The narrative is Lambert's, start to finish; the stated themes make sense only if we approach the movie through the perspective of someone who knows life on the reservation well - preferably someone who lives on the reservation, for that matter, though this thought seems to have crossed Sheridan's mind not at all. And yet there Banner is, demanding our attention and interceding on our behalf, and every time it happened, I found myself thinking very loudly, "yes, but why are you here?" And if Olsen, subsequently, feels like she exists in another movie, giving a performance that goes at angles to all the rest - I don't think it's an accident, and I don't know that it's "wrong", but it doesn't really work regardless.

The character is the only sour note for the first three-quarters of a movie that's full of very good things, in which the murder mystery serves as little more than a pretext for fleshing out the place and the characters; the movie cares mostly about emotional states, not the mechanics of solving the crime, and a never-better Renner, Greene, and especially Gil Birmingham as the dead woman's father are all exemplary, playing off of the ice-cold visuals in a way that makes the constant snow fee like an extension of the human lives in the story, the symbol of their misery rather than the cause. Sheridan, as director, doesn't try to rush this material, but lets it sink in through long, quiet passages, and heavily weighted imagery of the boundless outdoors, played by the mountains of Utah at their most flagrantly picturesque.

But a murder mystery it still is, never to its credit, and least of all when the time comes to solve things. It's a tremendously bad series of scenes: first we get a flashback triggered by absolutely nothing except a cheesy cut that demonstrates (as if the characterisation of Banner didn't already suggests as much) that Sheridan saw The Silence of the Lambs, just like the rest of us, and it's sufficiently harrowing in its juxtaposition of love and hate that it works on some visceral, primal level. But it's flat-out bad storytelling, and it's followed by a sudden eruption of over-the-top violence that needed to be managed with much more finesse if it was either going to fit into the cool tone of the film up to that point, or dramatically interrupt that tone with its horrifying suddenness.

The strengths of Wind River unquestionably outweigh its weaknesses; but the weaknesses are not incidental. They are at the core of what the film wants to do and how it goes about doing it. For the most part, this is a solid, dour tale of American Men in an Age of Decline even more secure and tightly-fitted than Hell or High Water, which was a great example of the form. But it stumbles exactly where that film thrived, in connecting its lonely heroes to the world around them, and making a social argument in addition to a psychological one, and as much as I enjoyed most of Wind River, it's clear that there's a better film, with more focus and a stronger engagement with its message about Native American life and suffering, that the filmmakers just barely avoid making. It's an excellent character drama, but it wants so badly to be more than a character drama, and it just doesn't quite get there.