Wind River is a brutal, gripping thriller based around true events. It’s hard to watch at times, but the writing and acting keep you riveted and grounded. US Fish and Wildlife Agent Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) investigate the death and apparent murder of a girl on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. This is a film whose message is necessary for people to see, difficult as it is.
Beyond this point, I’ll delve into some spoilers, just because the point of this film is so important.
The tale told here by Taylor Sheridan (writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water–both excellent films) is one that needs to be told. Sheridan adds his voice to the mounting number of calls for justice for unheard women, in this case Native American women–alongside works like Longmire, or The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. This is an intensely disturbing film at times, though not for its over the top gore or excessive violence, which other films have depicting in more graphic detail, but for its reality.
Wind River tells the tale of a young Arapaho woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’s not even with the wrong guy–Jon Bernthal makes a memorable side appearance as a good guy (for once!) who tries desperately to protect the woman he loves and wants to run off into the sunset with from a bunch of drunk contractors who took a horrific opportunity when it came.
This film depicts the darkness in men’s hearts and the depths of depravity to which they can descend, unplanned, at a moment’s notice. There is no vast, Dr. Evil-led conspiracy here. No drug cartel is using and squashing the people below it. The Hand is not waiting to unleash Hell on Hell’s Kitchen and New York City. This is a simple story of the women who go missing on Indian Reservations, with no one to hear their cries or search for them.
I have two stylistic complaints to accompany this brilliant film, which is certainly an Oscar contender.
Taylor Sheridan wrote and directed this film, and his writing has been lauded for both Sicario and Hell or High Water, which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. His directing, however, is still a bit of a work in progress. His last directed film was a 2011 Horror film called Vile (which looks like a Saw knockoff) and, to be fair, I’ve not seen it. However, Wind River was uneven in its atmosphere. It wanted the touch of Denis Villeneuve to bolster the mood. Wind River depicts blizzards and harsh country, but I don’t feel the atmosphere. Some slow-moving drone shots would have helped, or a stronger score. One of the best shots would be a helicopter shot flying over a ridge and up to the Oil Camp where the climax of the film takes place–more of that would do well.
My last critique is that Renner should not have been white. Don’t get me wrong, both Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen do amazing jobs here–Olsen in particular, could be up for a nomination. And yet, Renner is married to an Arapaho woman (Julia Jones, from Longmire and Twilight, along with most of the other Native American/First Nations actors here–it’s almost a reunion, highlighting that Hollywood is drawing from a shallow pool of actors) and has a son and has lost a daughter (in an eerily similar way to the girl at the center of this mystery). He’s a hunter and tracker and speaks with deep knowledge of Reservation life, going as far at one point as discussing “My family’s people” being forced into reservations. I don’t know why he was not played by a Native American man. Having Elizabeth Olsen be the only non-Native American and seeing things from her perspective how the reservations are criminally understaffed and ignored would make such a strong impact. In fact, there was a point at which she nearly ignores everything the reservation police chief (Graham Greene) is saying and turns to the only other white guy to get his input. That’s only a short moment, but it was noticeable.
This doesn’t mean Sheridan failed as a director–far from it. In fact, this film has one of the most tense standoffs ever. You can feel it develop and build until the climax. When Olsen gets to the Oil rig, along with the police chief and their meager backup, they’re greeted warmly by the security there, and as they walk toward the trailer of the suspect, they realize they’re being flanked by the security contractors. You see it happening, and you feel uneasy, and then they call attention to it and all hell breaks loose with a sudden force that leaves you shell shocked–Sheridan definitely took notes from Denis Villeneuve on this one, as it’s reminiscent of the early scenes in Sicario.
In the end, this is a film that people need to see, about a subject that demands discussion. I would be surprised if this didn’t show up on year’s best lists or on award nominations.