Wind River is a Native American reservation located in Wyoming, in a harsh snowy climate. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent who lives and works on the land. He discovers the body of a young girl who lived on the reservation, who had run several miles away from the nearest inhabitable location barefoot and shows signs of being raped. Novice FBI special agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent to the case, determined to declare the death a murder so she can investigate the case despite autopsy evidence suggesting she died of exposure. Allying herself with Lambert and the tribe’s police chef Ben (Graham Greene), they tackle the reservation and nearby inhabitants to figure out what happened to the girl.
Wind River is the latest film from Taylor Sheridan, whose previous screenwriting credits include Denis Villeneuve’s spectacular Sicario and the also excellent Hell or High Water by David Mackenzie. This time he takes the director’s chair, not for the first time in his career (he had previously directed 2011’s Vile), but a first for the current mode of screenplays he has been associated with, that of the social thriller. Grounded genre pieces that have reoccurring themes of social hierarchy and the systemic abuses we take for granted that ruin people’s lives. While missing Villeneuve’s fascination with the macabre of the human condition, and Mackenzie’s humanistic approach to broken people, Sheridan finds his own voice to distinct himself as a filmmaker in his own rights. This is a breakneck thriller that carries its tragedy right on its sleeves.
The film makes absolutely no secret that its primary focus is on the abuses and inequality that Native American people face. What makes this movie distinctive is that it actually goes to great lengths to show how they cope with the lot they have. Most of them are either hardened or jaded while still maintaining their dignity, unable to let the tragedy of the now several missing or murdered young women from their reservations. One of the best exemplifiers of this is a powerful and deeply uncomfortable scene at the house of the parents of the murdered girl. Gil Birmingham is absolutely heartbreaking as her father, refusing to budge to this stranger demanding answers to what happened to his daughter until he sees Lambert, and I won’t dare spoil what else happens in this moment. Easily the highlight in terms of acting, pacing and tone.
Part of the struggle the characters face is the harsh climate they live under, and Wind River takes full advantage of that. The vast, dead space of the snowscape terrains are beautifully captured by cinematographer Ben Richardson. It manages to be inviting as well as harsh and dangerous. The use of wildlife is clever as well, as the mountain lion who Lambert continues to stalk after, even with the knowledge that she’s just looking after her own cubs. This kind of nature makes you tough if you want to conquer it or it will end you, and it’s a wonderfully subtle metaphor that weaves through the entire narrative.
If I have any issue, it’s that the Native American people are ancillary in their own story. Not that the cast isn’t great-this is easily one of Jeremy Renner’s best roles, and everybody gives solid and emotional performances. However, it’s a story about the crimes that happen to Native American women, ignored by the societal structures that deems their issues not worthy of real examination, and it stars two white characters. It’s jarring is all, and leads into bigger, more uncomfortable questions of movie marketing. Another issue is that the way they resolve the story feels a little off and I don’t know if it works all that well or feels needed, though it does have a killer climax.
Wind River manages to be beautiful and deadly, with an engaging plot that has a really satisfying conclusion. The wonderful cast of characters really encapsulate the world surrounding them, which is suitably harsh, mysterious and gorgeous all in its own rights. It’s a wonderfully realised tale about the abuses people face and how they get hardened by their lives; you either face life with dignity and respect or you let it overtake you. Hard to watch, but bound to be a crowd pleaser.