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Dark Winds review – this brooding Navajo murder mystery begs to be binged

It does not take very long for a dark wind to appear in this 1970s-set murder mystery. We first meet the Navajo Nation cop Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) out in the middle of the parched plains of Monument Valley as he compels a sweaty white biker to dig a hole that looks like a grave. Could this be a prelude to some old-school frontier justice? A bullet to the skull, a body swallowed by the desert?

It is, in fact, a fake-out. The biker is being obliged to rebury some Native American artefacts he stole. But Leaphorn’s piercing gaze suggests that it would be a bad idea for the looter to push his luck. On cue, angry storm clouds blow in overhead.

It is one hell of a character introduction and helps establish a useful distinction between the poised Leaphorn and McClarnon’s other recent tribal police role, as the laid-back, Redbone-loving Big in the acclaimed comedy Reservation Dogs. But the broiling storm is entirely in keeping with the overcast mood of Alibi’s latest US import.

Based on the Leaphorn and Chee series of novels by the late Tony Hillerman – optioned by Robert Redford in the 1980s and previously adapted into various TV movies – Dark Winds is an unsettling crime drama that takes time to shade in the cultural specifics of its Navajo Nation setting. It features predominantly indigenous talent and Diné Bizaad language is used liberally in the dialogue. While set in 1971, it often harks back to much older traditions; it can feel as timeless as the imposing landscape.

The inciting incidents are twofold. A deadly armoured car heist in New Mexico climaxes with the bandits fleeing into Navajo territory via helicopter. Not long after, two Navajos – an old man and a teenage girl – are brutally murdered in a motel. The good news is that there is a witness. The bad news is that she is a blind healer.

Murder falls beyond the remit of the tribal police, so Leaphorn must defer to the smarmy FBI liaison Whitover (Noah Emmerich from The Americans, tamping down his usual screen warmth). Agent Whitover, who condescendingly calls Lt Leaphorn “kemosabe”, is hungry for potential leads on the heist crew and their getaway chopper. Since no locals will talk to a Fed, he proposes a you-scratch-my-back arrangement. Aware that it is the only way that the murder victims might get any justice – or even an autopsy – Leaphorn agrees.

With the help of his capable tribal police sergeant Bern (Jessica Matten) and newly transferred deputy Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), Leaphorn tries to sniff out the helicopter – no easy task when your patch is a vast, mostly arid wilderness of 27,000 sq miles – while also trying to piece together a backstory for the seemingly senseless motel killings.

Refreshingly, Dark Winds does not obscure some of its characters’ motivations for too long. Leaphorn and his wife, Emma (Deanna Allison), have been shaped by personal grief that the murders bring bubbling back to the surface. The brash Chee – a university-educated hotshot reluctantly returning to the reservation after almost a decade away – is nursing a parallel agenda. Both are revealed before the end of the first episode.

It is a knotty, atmospheric mystery that still feels fleet enough to be tackled in one or two binges. One of the main pleasures is seeing McClarnon – a hard-working actor who has been a welcome presence in series such as Westworld, Fargo and the similarly hardscrabble cowboy cop show Longmire – belatedly take centre stage. Leaphorn is a watchful combination of empathy, intelligence and coiled-spring physicality, constantly having to weigh up his instincts against what will be best for his people. It is a terrific, multifaceted performance.

It has taken a while for Dark Winds to come to the UK – season two broadcast in the US earlier this year, with a third in the works – but its arrival seems well timed. This week also sees the release of Killers of the Flower Moon, another sobering story about the government failing to act when Native Americans are murdered, either through callousness, incompetence or both. Despite being set in the 1970s, Dark Winds feels like a useful companion piece, one that suggests an uncomfortable question 50 years on: for Native Americans seeking justice for murder, is the situation materially different today?

  • Dark Winds aired on Alibi and is available as a box set on UKTV Play in the UK. It is available on SBS On Demand in Australia.