I went to watch Wind River having little to no expectation set on the film. In fact, I’d only seen the trailer once, at the movie theatre back in August, and made a mental note that it looked interesting enough to go and watch at some point in the future. All I knew was that it starred Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, and that Taylor Sheridan had written and directed it. It only clicked, after a quick google about ten minutes before the movie started (I must admit), that Sheridan was also the man behind one of the best thrillers I’d seen, or that I could recently remember, Sicario, and that he’d also penned Hell and High Water (on my ‘watch’ list). Once I’d learned that, my expectations took an upturn. And quite rightly too. For those who’ve yet to give Sicario a watch, or explore Sheridan’s (current) small body of work, I urge you to do so, and whilst Sicario is a writing credit for Sheridan, and a strong one at that, Wind River is only his second foray into directing.
Set in the remote Wind River Indian Reservation in a tellingly chilly central Wyoming, it’s the setting, the eternally oppressive snow, working both for and against Renner and Olsen, that make Wind River such a riveting, and equally tense watch. Like many a crime thriller, both on the big screen, and the small, it’s the location that sets the pace. As the movie tells us, ‘luck don’t live out here’. Truly, it’s all deadly beauty.
This is no action movie either. No flash in the pan detective thriller, with over the top performances. Rather, it’s all understated drama, carefully planned, with a meticulous (although flawed, which I’ll come on to) exploration of the Native American experience in central North America. It’s thoughtful, and haunting, unfolding the mystery at a snail’s pace. Sheridan is, without doubt, a talented writer. A promising director too. But he still has more to learn.
Opening on a shot of a young Native American woman (Kelsey Asbille) running out into the wilderness, flanked by the snow-covered mountains, you get the sense that sometimes living in an expanse, in a place so vast, is soul crushingly claustrophobic. There’s nothing like a lot of space to make you feel small, and scared. There’s no doubt too, that from the moment you see her running barefoot, she isn’t making it anywhere alive. Who, or what she was running from, becomes the focus, and the focus too, shifts onto Renner.
Portraying characters with depth has always been my main gripe with Jeremy Renner, but here he delivers perhaps his best, or at least one of, his best cinematic performances. Playing U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Cory Lambert, Renner is the one to discover the young woman’s body whilst out hunting. You can tell too, from the way he silently reacts, that he knows this girl, evidence of Sheridan building in threads of narrative that keep Wind River engaging. Identifying her as Natalie Hanson, he calls the local Tribal Police Chief for backup (Graham Greene) and it is then that Jane Banner (Olsen), a rookie FBI agent, akin to Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, arrives. She is vastly out of her depth, and remains so for much of the film.
From then on it’s a standard detective thriller. Yet, not really. Whilst Greene and Olsen take up the role of the ‘law’ it’s rather Lambert that really knows his way around. It’s no surprise either. In a place so desolate, where clues can disappear in the snow, and resurface months later, it’s the guy who hunts, who knows the wild, that knows where look for the truth. But he too, has a personal attachment to the case. His daughter Emily was friends with Natalie, and she died three years earlier, a death for which has no answers. You can see the mission he’s on, to solve the crime not only for his friend Martin (Gil Birmingham, father of Natalie), but also for himself, as a way of closure and as a way of dealing with his grief. And it’s grief that plays the biggest part. Well, that and the snow. The beautiful brutal snow. As the Police Chief tells Banner when she enquires about the weather, ‘it could be stunning, then in an hour you’re right back in hell again’. Wyoming isn’t for the faint hearted, and neither is the plot.
I don’t want to give spoilers, so I won’t, but it’s the plot that gives the film it’s best moments, but also its worst. Here though, ‘worst’ really isn’t all that bad, as Wind River is a compelling watch. Yet, Sheridan falls into traps that you would expect, from such a gifted screenwriter, he would typically avoid. Olsen’s character isn’t three dimensional enough to be totally believable. She is an FBI Agent, although a rookie one, and accordingly she should be given a little more leeway in terms of her knowledge and instinct in solving a case (or so I feel). She isn’t given enough to do, and when she is, it’s usually Renner who comes to save her from herself, which can be grating at times to watch. Whilst Elizabeth Olsen plays it well, naïve but with heart, and should be praised as such, she could be even better given a character that is fleshed out on screen.
That, in turn, brings me onto Jeremy Renner himself. He is engrossing in this film, that’s without a doubt. He’s understated, and as I said a few paragraphs back, plays one of his best roles to date. But, and this lies with Sheridan, there is a slight crossing of paths between the two narratives that the movie appears to present. There is Lambert’s story and there is the outer story that revolves around the Native American experience in America, and the very real sense of abandonment. For me, he should pick one or the other, as both suffer from being underdeveloped. Either he gives a movie about Lambert, which would still be engaging, or he switches focus. And whilst he gives elements of acknowledgement, with Natalie’s father stating, when Jane arrives, ‘why is it whenever you people try to help, it starts with insults’, Sheridan doesn’t fully commit to giving a well-rounded representation, and the issue of ‘agency’ and who has it, falls by the way side. He gives too much back to Renner, and unfortunately stumbles into the avoidable pit of ‘white saviour’, that plagues many a film.
Yet, Wind River is both an intriguing and captivating watch. The cinematography is lush at times, playing the cartoon blue sky off the snow in a crisp fashion, and the interplay between Renner and Olsen is refreshing to witness. This is furthered too by the fact that there is no relationship, romantically, built between them, which would be unnecessary were Sheridan to go down that road. The score too, cultivated and composed by Nick Cave, is typically pulpy, and only adds to the sense of foreboding.
However, it’s the final shot of the movie that, after watching the ordeal unfold on screen (and it’s brutal at times), rendered me numb. No background, no actors, no light, just white text stating that in America there are no missing person stats for Native American women. There are stats however, for every other demographic. It’s shocking, truly, and so it should be. For me, that is where Sheridan should have centralised, and that too, is where the narrative should have given more airtime, not simply because it’s provocative, but because its important, and deserves to be chronicled on screen in a faithful fashion.
Acacia Filmed Entertainment
Ingenious Media(in association with)
Savvy Media Holdings
Star Thrower Entertainment(in association with)
Synergics Films(in association with)
Thunder Road Pictures
Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana(in association with)
Voltage Pictures(in association with)
Wild Bunch(in association with)
Review by Emily Harrison
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