Wind River is a suspenseful murder mystery surrounding the death of Natalie Hanson, a young woman who was raped and murdered near the Wind River Native American Reservation in Wyoming. The film serves as a commentary on the subordination of Native Americans in the US, particularly women—an issue that has mostly been ignored by the government and citizens. Taylor Sheridan does well in his directorial debut, and his script is excellent, something that has come to be expected of the Oscar-nominated writer of Hell or High Water and Sicario. Add great acting performances turned in by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen and truly suspenseful filmmaking to the mix, and you have a must-see film.
The Wind River Reservation is far from glamorous – it’s very cold, there’s lots of snow and, for all intents and purposes, you’re lost. The people living on the reserve, which is comprised mainly of Native Americans, live somber, serious lives. The people we’re introduced to are farmers, and it seems like everyone lives a similar working life. The murder of Natalie is a horrible incident to happen to the most undeserving of people. Mr. Hanson is crushed, and Mrs. Hanson resorts to cutting herself.
There are only a few options as to who might have committed the crime given their desolate location, so it’s not the most convoluted plot. That’s because the film labours more on displaying the hardships Wind River bestows upon its residents – the hardships of Native Americans, the hardships of climate and the hardships of feeling forgotten. Cinematographer Ben Richardson does an astounding job at capturing the concept of Wind River and the hopelessness and loss its residents feel. The snow and weather is a prominent element of the film and the environment is like another leading character. It’s truly amazing how Richardson can create such a real sense of fear out of the vastness of Wyoming’s winter countryside.
Unsurprisingly, Jeremy Renner is impeccable in his very nuanced performance of Cory Lambert, a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent with a great shot who is first to find Natalie’s body. Everyone in the film deals with loss, especially Lambert, and Renner does very well at portraying this without being melodramatic. It’s not a very emotional performance, but it’s strong. Elizabeth Olsen plays Jane Banner, an FBI agent who has walked into a world that she is grossly not fit for. Gil Birmingham offers a tense and deeply emotional performance as Natalie’s father, and Jon Bernthal is great in a very short appearance. Despite a strong cast, and Wind River being a movie spotlighting the struggle of women, the movie lacks any real substantial female characters to latch on to, which touches on a larger issue with the film as a whole.
In Hell or High Water and Sicaro, Sheridan adds fiction to real life circumstances in order to tell a story that remains cinematically captivating while still providing serious commentary on the issue at hand. Both of these films are examples of how Sheridan can simultaneously create a box office success and expose real world circumstances for the serious burden it is on the people dealing with it. When it comes to Wind River, the issue at hand is the complete subordination of Native American women in Northern communities, specifically Wyoming and the Wind River Reservation. In communities as such, women are frequently killed, brutally abused and completely ignored.
Compared to Sheridan’s other works, Wind River falters in giving the issues at hand enough weight and attention compared to the film’s more cinematic elements. Native American women are the victims of the circumstance in question, but aside from a few short flashbacks and memories, Native American women are not really put at the forefront of this film. It would have been nice to have more scenes of dialogue with women of the Wind River Reservation; instead we just get flashes of the brutality thrust upon them.
That being said, Wind River is a great film. The emotional elements of the film are effective, the acting is solid and the story is captivating. Sheridan has written a terrific script that somehow is able to add levity in such a grim reality. With his first directorial experience under his belt, it will be interesting to see what Sheridan does next. Wind River gets two thumbs up.
[Originally published in the August 2017 edition of Beatroute Magazine]