Overview: A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent in Wyoming discovers a dead body, kicking off an investigation that opens old wounds. The Weinstein Company; 2017; Rated R: 111 Minutes.
Snow and Silence: For movies like Wind River, we often like to use summary phrases like “meditation on grief.” But the new sophomore effort from Director Taylor Sheridan (the screenwriter behind Sicario and Hell or High Water) might unravel with a distinct stillness and quiet—the first and second acts see Ben Richardson’s camera pursue a handful of basic elements: snow falling as thick as television static, rigid trees, dead bodies positioned in stillness amongst them, and living bodies moving sadly through them—but the story beats a thudding percussion of mourning louder than action films fire gunshots and superhero movies unleash explosions. Wind River is anything but meditative in its framing of grief. Instead, Sheridan’s film (which he wrote as well as directed) has no reserve or subtlety in its mournfulness. The snow-buried mountainous Wyoming reservation is an emboldened psychic landscape equating un-survivable freeze with despair as apparently as any film since Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, but where the 2011 Liam Neeson film (and many like it) seek to embed an essay on loss within a genre exercise, Wind River refuses its more superficial format pretty decisively. In fact, after FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up to lead the investigation into the death of teenage Natalie Henson (Kelsey Chow), she is dragged out of the procedural film we expect to be started by her arrival and into a house-to-house tour of gut-wrenching sadness.
Professional hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) serves as Jane’s lead tour guide through this landscape of sullen melancholy. Cory, we know even before his discovery of the central victim’s body, is reeling from the loss of his own teenage daughter years before (incidentally, Emily Lambert was Natalie’s close friend). It is in that context that Cory sits as a sort of emotional and narrative compass for the rest of the film’s beats and players. The opening acts see him providing makeshift counseling to Martin Hanson, Natalie’s father, played by Gil Birmingham. Martin has to let himself feel the hurt openly, Cory explains to him, or he will erase every memory he has of her. Later, after an investigatory raid of a drug house, Natalie’s brother Chip (Martin Sensmeier) sits with Cory in the back of a cop car and explains that sometimes he gets so angry that he wants to fight the whole world. He asks Cory if he knows what that feels like and Cory replies that he does, but he chooses to fight the feeling instead. He’s pretty sure, he explains, that the world would beat him.
Renner, in perhaps a career-best performance (which is still, maybe, second fiddle to Olsen’s turn here) plays Cory with a contemporary emotional vulnerability painted upon the more traditional rough-and-tumble Western hero template, like John Wayne with a sense of mindfulness or a Charles Bronson-type knowledgeable in cognitive behavioral therapy. This places Cory as a foil to the more destructive masculine element that has helped an oppressive white culture destroy the reservation’s hope. And if Cory’s calm-fingered performance in a violent climactic shootout confuses the message, his sitting to provide company and reassurance to a tearful Martin in the film’s closing moments helps clear the smudges. “I’m not going anywhere,” Cory promises, and we remember by contrast the countless heroes who would, at this point, be moving alone into a sunset.
Luck Don’t Live Out Here: But while Sheridan clearly articulates his thoughts on the need for a more emotionally stable masculinity, the same cannot be said, at least not as confidently, for his concern for women in the same region. When the closing title screen informed me that the FBI keeps no statistics on missing Native American women, I was a bit confused. Not by the information itself, which is, on its own, rather jarring. But because the film, outside of the most superficial threads, seems unconcerned with this problem statement.
If you count Cory’s daughter Emily, who is present only in pictures and an early voiceover, there are five women roles, four of them Native American, in Wind River. Two of these women, the mothers of the two victims, are given one or two scenes each as a short illustration of their mourning. The other four are all subjected to an intense act of violence, including self-mutilation, a shotgun blast to the chest and neck, rape, and murder (the last of which being the only one to occur off-screen). In a film that sees roughly half of its speaking characters taken down in a violent climax, there may be an impulse to forgive the harshness unleashed on its women as fair game or perhaps to classify the screen violence as an expression of female erasure in the reservation community. But given that no dialogue extends in the direction of such a thesis, and that the closing act sees the value of all of these women assessed through their ability to survive and fight these acts of violence, and, perhaps most egregiously, that the rape sequence is discovered by a flashback scene that the movie drives into with the eloquence of an emergency brake pulled in the middle of a blizzard, a scene which one has to think could be easily avoided by a writer with Sheridan’s documented gifts, it becomes that much harder to forgive or make excuses for its counter-intuitively expressed final note of sympathy.
Overall: Wind River is a movie as cold in its grief as Wyoming snow and as tough as the bark on late winter trees. In turns powerful and confusing, the film advertises hopeful promise from a new director and an unexpected weakness from a celebrated writer.