During the final shot of writer/director Taylor Sheridan's Wind River, words appear on screen indicating the FBI does not keep statistics on the disappearances of Native American women. To date, those numbers remain a mystery. It's a troubling statement for many reasons, some of which the film attempts to shine a spotlight on. But, is Wind River a purposeful thriller or just a political harangue on the plight of Native Americans?
The Set Up
U.S. Fish & Wildlife agent Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) finds the dead body of an eighteen year old Native American woman while out hunting mountain lions that have been wreaking havoc on local farms on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Suspecting foul play, FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is dispatched to the scene, setting the stage for a murder investigation that unearths some uncomfortable truths about living in the middle of nowhere, where your problems are mostly your own.
What I Liked
- Wind River is an expose on how individuals handle grief, and how it's such a personal experience for everyone. The young woman Lambert found was the daughter of a friend, and also a friend to his own daughter who died just a few years prior. Lambert must confront his own personal loss, and his mission turns to one of vengeance for his friend, and some sense of closure for himself. Guilt and sorrow bubble to the surface. The helplessness he feels from the destruction of his own family weighs on him. Sheridan does a great job at positioning his characters in a way that work well with the heavy themes of the film.
- Piggybacking off that, Jeremy Renner is doing his best work since The Hurt Locker. He's latched onto some larger franchises of late and hasn't really been given a chance to significantly stand out in any of them. Here's to hoping he takes on more roles of this nature, as it feels like where he belongs as an actor. Here, he perfectly sells his character as someone who is tired from carrying around a heavy heart for the past couple of years. He gets by barely on the need to function in the world around him for the sake of his son. Renner brings a believability to Lambert. He's easy to root for, yet it's clear that just existing is a constant struggle for him.
- Taylor Sheridan's script is pretty tight. He's quickly becoming one of my favorite writers working in film today. He brings authenticity to his characters, especially when many of them are working under high stress situations. Between his earlier credits on Sicario, Hell or High Water, and now Wind River, Sheridan finds ways to reign in the temptation to overindulge his audience with traditional genre tropes. His use of terrains in his films - the stifling, thick desert heat in Hell or High Water, and the expansive isolation of the freezing Wyoming mountainside in Wind River - help in the cause. These locales wrap the viewer in the film, encompassing us within the world he's created.
- There is a scene in the film that is very uncomfortable to watch. This could have easily been bandied about as exploitative, but it really isn't. Is it a tough scene? Absolutely. It's a visceral experience, and really hammers home the message Sheridan is trying to convey. It's a very "Who watches the Watchmen" analogy at play. What guardrails are in place to protect the most vulnerable in one of the most unforgiving of places? It's an essential moment in the film for many reasons and cannot be dismissed as unnecessary.
What I Didn't Like
- As much as I enjoy Elizabeth Olsen as an actress, I feel like Sheridan missed the mark with her character here. Jane Banner at times feels like a tacked on female presence simply to be nothing more than a female presence. Thankfully, Sheridan doesn't dismiss her completely as just a gender construct (she's rarely pandered to as just a woman in a man's world), but I struggled at times to see what her motivations were. The film always feels like it's aligning with Lambert's fulfillment, and when it comes time for the inciting incident to propel us into the final acts, it's Lambert that has to save Banner. It's unfortunate.
- There is a lot of setup explaining the harshness of the weather and how it affects the investigative work, but a lot of that seemed for naught. Once in a while a blizzard whips through to remind us that it's cold out, but it felt like a lot more telling than showing was going on. The dangers of existing in this wintery wilderness never felt quite as ominous as I suspect the filmmakers were trying to convey. The proper atmosphere was created as a backdrop, but ultimately kept at a distance. Of course, drowning the screen with constant harsh weather might have ruined the feeling of the sprawling wild, so maybe there was some intention there.
Wind River is another solid thriller from the pen of Taylor Sheridan, and as a feature directorial debut, it also proves he is worthy of some acclaim for more than just his writing chops. There is a message here regarding the plight of Native Americans, especially women, and how they are at the mercy of local authorities who are understaffed and a government that barely cares what happens on the reservations. Allies are scarce, and predators are real. The film serves as a poignant look at some uncomfortable truths.
There are a lot of themes to unpack for a fairly straightforward film, but that's really what makes Wind River such a success. Sheridan has attempted to open up our minds and eyes to situations without hammering us over the head with cliches and stiff characters. There should be a lot of excitement over what he chooses to do next.
4 out of 5