Every once and awhile, a movie comes along like Wind River, one that you very much want to like, and are nearly sold on, until you notice yourself being played once again by the filtered Hollywood film machine. As the major directorial debut of Hell or High Water scribe Taylor Sheridan, Wind River is undoubtedly a gritty, dynamic, and hard-hitting debut, but one that comes with its own setbacks. Several key aspects of the narrative are sacrificed to serve the film’s grand purpose of building both suspense and development of Jeremy Renner’s tortured character. Around these two foundations, though, is a beautifully shot movie, with a moving score, and a chillingly stark-yet-stunning snowy backdrop on which the drama’s mystery unfolds.
Wind River’s plot is skillfully quiet at the outset to build tension and suspense for the explosivity to come. Following the mysterious death and possible murder of a local girl (Kelsey Asbille) on the Wind River Native American reservation, an unordinary FBI investigation headed by Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) ensues with the help of Cory Lambert (Renner), a local game tracker and resident. A town covered in snow and known to harsh blizzards with miles and miles between landmarks and houses, the ground covered by the investigation is vast, yet the details, suspects, and leads are as minute as a single footprint in the snow. Renner’s proven knack for quiet intensity (Hurt Locker) is utilized to its fullest here, and Olsen plays the concerned fish-out-of-water aspects of her role to both sturdy and emotional results.
Olsen, to no surprise here, seamlessly fills the boots of the young, trained, and hopeful FBI investigator. That said, her presence within the film is somewhat perplexing and troubling all the same. Banner has little backstory to speak of, aside from her being stationed in Las Vegas, the knowledge that she has a clinical mastery over her work, and also that she brings sympathy to her investigations. After examining the snow-covered dead body of the film’s victim Natalie, Banner finds that she may have been raped several times, and desperately ran barefoot in the snow for several miles, if not more. With the coroner’s report citing death from the cold rather than homicide, Banner feels obligated to see the investigation through herself, although it is outside of her usual limited reporting duties. Banner is a welcome character to the fold in that she is unexpected and green to this type of work, allowing the audience to project themselves onto her; but, that is also where the film stumbles, creating a female character with no other personal motivation than to get the audience from point A to B. The audience knows a whole lot more about the dead female victim than the starring female lead, making Olsen a big name accessory.
Renner in the role of Cory, a local tracker and single father with a troubled past, is given much more meat to chew on. Banner enlists Cory’s help after he is the initial person to find the girl dead while out hunting lions in an effort to reduce the local prey (the double connotations of this is not lost on the film whatsoever). In a stark and barren landscape, with clues threatening to be blown away by the next blizzard, the skillset of someone like Cory is essential to the film’s investigation. Not only does he blend in and navigate the landscape like he is a part of it, he also knows the local people well, including the victim who was once a close friend to his deceased daughter. A perfect foil to Banner, Cory is the ultimate insider to both the people, potential suspects, and unforgiving climatic environment.
Even with Cory, though, the film skirts the dangerous edges of entering into white savior territory. Piling onto the already invading white female stranger, Wind River’s first line of defense (aside from a slim local police) is another foreign import, bonded to the land and the people through a previous marriage and children who are now direct descendants. Although the film does well to represent the Native American population, their sensibilities, and their real-life struggles (barring knowledge of my own heritage and personal experience), the people of Wind River feel like a plot device up until the last moments of the film when it briefly mentions that the missing female Native American population goes unrecorded in our country, suggesting that there could be a staggering number of such cases existing in the real world.
This suggestion is undoubtedly arresting, and is perfect punctuation for a film that revels in hidden and sudden violence. Most of the killers in Wind River lurk under the surface and take their victims slowly, such as the harsh climate and the local youth succumbing to drugs and crime. This makes the suspense feel all the more visceral for the audience up until the explosive moments in the film where the plot exponentially amps up. This methodical buildup is where Sheridan thrives. He employs a broken timeline in order to make a somewhat standard and self-explanatory crime seem surprising and revelatory. Sheridan unfolds his story in such a way that doesn’t break down any token narrative or character walls, but which keeps the audience engaged and on their toes for most of the film. As a result, Sheridan delivers several powerful moments of action, which are amplified by the silent tension before the pull of the trigger.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
As a director, Taylor Sheridan has delivered a powerful and palpably intense film for his first major studio solo outing. While the character arcs, motivations, and casting of Wind River desperately need some key revisions, the beauty, entertainment value, and artistic integrity of the film are not to be overlooked. Sheridan does well in bringing stylistic twists to the murder investigation plot, and makes up for his somewhat anti-climactic ending with an expertly crafted narrative build.