By Kyle Barr
The first time the audience sees the Native American reservation in “Wind River,” written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, they see a fire pit surrounded by natives huddling in blankets against the cold. The small thin sticks of the fire form a teepee and give off a dark grey smoke. It then cuts to an American flag hanging from a pole upside down. At this point in the film, it became clear that this wasn’t the mystery crime thriller that the marketing material and trailers made it out to be.
One can be excused for thinking that the bare plot could serve as a vehicle for much nuance. A young Native American woman named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) is found dead in the snow by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent. She has died miles away from the nearest building without shoes and with signs of murder and rape apparent on her body.
FBI special agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) comes to investigate, but when the coroner cannot declare the death a murder, which would give Banner the authority to call in a full FBI investigation, she teams up with surly Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and Lambert to find the killer, not yet aware that Lambert has his own personal reasons for becoming so involved in the murder of this young woman.
The story plays out much less like a mystery thriller and more like a police procedural, unfolding from one discovery to the next until we finally find out who has committed the rape and murder, via a flashback toward the very end of the film. That ends up being a very good thing, as a mystery could have been a distraction from the point the film tries to make. The big revelation that ties the themes of the film together is not figuring out exactly who was responsible, but who those responsible people represent.
Early in the film it is clear that it is going to be politically charged. The Wind River Reservation in Wyoming is shown to be a cold, ravaged land with little in the way of resources, both natural and governmental. Films like “Fargo” have already figured out the lonely and desperate tone a film can have with wide, sweeping shots of snow-covered plains and smothered buildings. But while in the Coen Brother’s film the empty expanse is supposed to put the audience on edge, the empty fields and silent mountaintops in “Wind River” showcase a sorrow brought by white desolation.
The only shame then is that there is still a hint of the white-man-saves-the-brown-people plot that Hollywood still continues to peddle (just think “Dances with Wolves.”) That is not to say that Renner and Olsen don’t do an excellent job showing people who honestly care, not just about the death of the young woman, but also for the plight of Native Americans on the reservation.
Olsen’s character works well in this context, as the native characters like Martin, played by Gil Birmingham, are not only reserved around her, but even antagonistic because she represents both the authority of the federal government they feel has abandoned them and a century-long history of repression.
While the native characters are not as reserved around Renner’s character, the film does a good job at showing that even though he has lived among them for years, he will never truly be a part of their society.
Yet it’s still hard not to say that Renner’s character, especially considering the events at the very end of the film, would have been even more poignant if played by a Native American actor. It’s hard to recommend a better film, especially one that deals with topics so rarely seen in other major motion pictures. “Wind River” is a legitimately good film that you might owe it to yourself to watch, especially as the summer blockbuster season winds to a close.
Rated R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language, “Wind River” is now playing in local theaters.
Photos courtesy of The Weinstein Company