Wind River (2017) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, Martin Sensmeier, Hugh Dillon, Matthew Del Negro
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
Review published August 22, 2017
Cory Lambert (Renner, Arrival) works as officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, mostly as a hunter to keep predator animals from devouring the livestock of farmers whose livelihoods depend on being protected. While in his line of duty, Lambert discovers the brutalized, frozen body of an 18-year-old woman he is familiar with, while on the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming, who had apparently died running with fright until the cold environment overtook her. The closest FBI officer in the vicinity to investigate the apparent rape-murder is Jane Banner (Olsen, Captain America: Civil War), stationed in Las Vegas. Banner is a bit in over her head, but there's Ben (Greene, Winter's Tale), head of the reservation's understaffed police force to help ease her transition into the reservation, while Lambert is able to serve as the tracker in the treacherous, icy mountain environment, investigating the trails that lead to the body before they end up covered up in snow. For Banner, it's a chance to prove herself; for Lambert, it's a chance to deal with trauma in his past that this case has hashed back to the surface.
Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, his third produced, but what a roll he has been on: Sicario and Hell or High Water rank among the best screenplays of the last couple of years. All three take place in harsh parts of North America, where innocent people, who must fend for themselves, are often used or preyed upon by those with some modicum of power, while the authorities are largely helpless to do much about the situation, if they haven't already turned a blind eye. Although a mystery-thriller, this one isn't really built on trying to throw audiences off the scent, but uses the intrigue to keep us on our toes while we're also learning more about the characters, their customs, and the troubles of the world around them. The solution to the mystery is not what the film is about so much as the the reasons why it happened, and what it says about us as a people, and as individuals who may not always live up to the promise of protection of our children. While Cory finds it to be straightforward to target the predators in the animal world against the weak, it's not so easy to spot the predators among humankind, which makes a protector like him especially anguished when he fails.
As we follow the investigation, we learn more about Natalie's family, and in turn about Lambert and his past, whose daughter died under a similarly tragic circumstance just a few years before, effectively ending his marriage. Sheridan, who spent time living on an Indian reservation in his younger years, takes great care in exploring the grieving process of the various individuals, and how it shapes them into different people, and shifts their purpose and resolve into trying to appease the ghosts of the past that haunt them. It also delves into how people can behave differently when living in an impoverished and isolated state without much to seemingly live for, turning to alcohol, drugs, violence or worse due to the boredom and lack of opportunities around them, which, unfortunately, further compounds their despair. Even though the land around the Arapaho and Shoshone seems open and vast, it is also very confining in the larger scheme of things when there doesn't seem to be any place to go or thing to do to stave off prolonged ennui.
I feel the need to reassert the fact that Wind River is a film that is more about wanting you, as the viewer, to make some realizations about the situation that Native Americans find themselves in more so than it cares about spinning a ripping good mystery yarn. Certainly, one can only assume that the rape and murder of native people over centuries without much protection or reparations is, here, being pushed forward in a very strong metaphorical way with a story that is more directly about a rape and murder. While that might seem like this might make for a heavy-handed way to tell its story, Sheridan wisely uses characters and setting to expose problems only, not to preach or push forward every solution. He merely illustrates that there is a chain of power that perpetuates problems, as one group dictates to the other how they should live, and even those within that group pass that power shift down through their own families. At some point, there will be those who have no power, and Sheridan suggests that Native American women are the most at risk in this regard in today's society.
Although not as stylish or gripping as Sicario or as emotionally resonant or thematically powerful as Hell or High Water, Wind River still merits a look for Sheridan's continued ability to find socially relevant dramatic stories that resonate with human elements and a truthful delivery. It also features some terrific performances, most notably from Jeremy Renner, who has rarely been better, as the troubled and grief-stricken father who finds that the only way to deal with loss is to embrace its crippling existence, which is especially daunting in a place where a child's well-being is difficult to protect. Also at risk is the newcomer to the reservation, Jane Banner, nicely portrayed for the most part by Elizabeth Olsen, who trained in martial arts and firearms for sex months to be ready for the part, though her character grows more marginalized as the story progresses into a tale of fathers and lost daughters, as she never quite gains traction within Native society.
More than anything, Sheridan seems to be wanting to impart on his audience an important story about the vulnerability of those who live their lives in an isolated state of poverty and lack of adequate protection from a government that persistently fails to deliver as promised in favor of handing corporations more access, and how they continue to live on the whim of those with power, and who also might die on that same whim. The astonishing rate of sexually assaulted and/or missing Native American women is of utmost concern, raising awareness to a country that often has a blind eye to the perils that face those who don't have the benefit of adequate governmental protections (or, at least, more than indifference), or in being in the public eye beyond having to protest yet another attempt to exploit them for their land or their culture.
Unlike Denis Villeneuve or David Mackenzie's takes on Taylor Sheridan's pseudo-Western scripts, where the roles of 'Cowboys and Indians' are redefined for the modern era to find more common ground and common enemies, his own directorial vision seems more prosaic than poetic, but that's still quite enough to make a good film when the prose is this compelling. If he continues to improve as a director, we're in for quite a few more great crime movies in the future.
©2017 Vince Leo