Wind River is a crime thriller about tragic events occurring on the Wind River Reservation in central western Wyoming; home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. The setting is a character all on its own. Harsh weather conditions (freezing rain and blizzard-level snow fall) and rural living under trying financial circumstances speak loudly into the isolation heightening the tension all while highlighting the majestic but unforgiving terrain.
Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent, with deep family ties to the community. During a call out to hunt a four-legged predator killing livestock, he comes across a bloody trail leading to a person half-frozen in the snow miles away from home. Shortly thereafter, FBI Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to evaluate the scene and determine if federal involvement in warranted. The body discovered is an eighteen year old girl named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) and it’s obvious to Lambert that she died a hard death after running for her life through the snow.
It soon becomes apparent that Wind River will have little in common with most police procedural movies and has more of a locked room mystery feel (if frozen isolated tundra can be considered a “room”) as Banner quickly discovers that no more federal aid is coming. This isn’t a crime that’ll be solved by a lab, a team of agents and high-tech investigative techniques. But ddespite obstacles and roadblocks, she is intent on finding the killer; and for reasons of his own, Lambert agrees to lend his tracking skills to the investigation.
Wind River effortlessly demonstrates that this is community very familiar with neglect and being disregarded. The official handling of this crime makes that a point impossible to miss. The why behind the tribal police being on their own, is an uncomfortable sticking point. Sheridan plays in the margins of the turbulent relationship between the federal government and tribunal authority to illustrate how easily crimes, including murder, can go unpunished when the law works against a community rather than for it. Here, the federal government is a careless ‘caretaker’ of the Wind River reservation and its inhabitants.
This ill-concealed truth is at its most obvious as Agent Banner bungled again and again when trying to interact with or question residents. Her obliviousness isn’t malicious but her heavy-handed tactics illustrate the callousness inherent in approaching every situation as if it should conform to her core beliefs and understanding. An undercurrent to these scenes lies a commentary on parenting and the fears and failures that come with the job of raising children. This scenes are so heartbreaking and discomforting you almost don’t even realize everything you learned that will ultimately reveal the killer until you’re in the thick of the action in the final act.
Sheridan’s decision to convey its messages through the unfolding action, gripping visuals, and a no-nonsense style helps Wind River tell a far more compelling story than if the script called for overt moralizing or attempted to fabricate some deep connection between Banner and the people in this town that would’ve come off as disingenuous at best. Thankfully, she’s not written as the “savior” come to right all the wrongs. She’s an unwelcome visitor and remains so regardless of her dedication to the case. Banner embodied this character so well there were a few times were I was actively exasperated with her. Agent Banner may not get much deep diving in the character development department but in this case it’s a good thing because it permits the role to act as a mirror for a much more complex situation.
These are real people with real pain, real problems and no interest in making time for an outsider coming in making assumptions and questioning things they haven’t even tried to understand. Anyone who’s had their actions questioned in hindsight (we all know a Monday-morning quarterback personality type) will certainly related to the their reaction to Banner even if they can’t related to the specific pain the people are suffering through.
As the story unfolds, all these characters remain simple, but they don’t feel simple. The grief and mourning in Wind River is tangible and all the more powerful for being understated. Jeremy Renner’s stoic demeanor covers a wealth of pain the audience can almost touch. As his relationship to the murdered girl’s family unfolds, his reasons for getting involved become painfully clear. His character calls to mind mostly forgotten frontiersmen who were just as likely to favor “rough justice” as they were to follow the rule of law. His portrayal is authentic in a way that aids the movie’s ending making it seem less far-fetched. There more than a little revenge fantasy played out, but somehow it seems fitting to the terrain and the story being told.
It’s not a perfect film by any means but I found myself fully invested in the story and in wholehearted agreement with the final outcome – I may be more than a bit bloodthirsty – of the investigation.
At first glance, it would be easy to discount Wind River as yet another young naive (white) female cop “fish out of water” police procedural; but in short order you realize this is a story about the struggle with a capital S. The struggle of a marginalized people to be safe in their homes and their person. The struggle of policing without resources. The struggle to continue in the face of harsh conditions, loss, and abject misery.
Writer/director Taylor Sheridan shifts Wind River’s premise away from the expected with subtle story cues and drawing powerful, nuanced performances from the entire cast. If you’re looking for over-emotive, “bigger than life” loud performances, this isn’t the film to satisfy you. The lives and circumstances of the people living in this community are the real story just as much as the murder being investigated and this creates a tension all its own driving home the message: the forgotten deserve justice.
Wind River is a built on straightforward dialogue, quiet emotional intensity, and letting the story stand on the quality performances of seemingly simple characters to establish its emotional connection. Sheridan skillfully uses these tools to navigate Wind River and unravel a young woman’s ugly and violent death in a setting so criminally neglected that is a tragedy story unfolding all on its own.
Winder River released August 11, 2017 (limited). If you find yourself in the mood for a crime thriller with more than the standard mystery to its core, I recommend you check it out.
Rating: 3.75 out 5
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