Wind River (2017)
Dir. Taylor Sheridan; Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham
[3 out of 4 stars]
We know what cowboys are like. They ride horses as they chase outlaws and cattle over scorching desert. They do battle with thinly-sketched Native American characters and ride off into the sunset with “evil” vanquished and the town on the edge of the frontier restored to order. That is the mythos of the American West, a world built by cinematic icons like John Ford, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper. Yet, over time, the genre seemed to curdle and die out. Celebratory films were replaced by reevaluations of the mythos. Wind River (2017), the first major directorial effort by acclaimed screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, is a brutal reassessment of the myth. His characters may ride snowmobiles instead of horses, but there’s no mistaking what it is: a Western.
The film centers on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming in the depths of winter. Its first shots reveal a yet-to-be-identified young woman running with heartbreaking desperation across a barren expanse of snow. Her blue jacket is striking set against the bleached surroundings. The camera moves in on her as she falls into the snow, and we see that she is bloodied and suffering. She has no shoes, and we have no way of knowing from where she has come. Yet she gets up and continues to run. It is a stark and effective introduction to the world we are about to enter. As one character says much later in the movie, “Luck don’t live out here.” It is an unforgiving landscape and is filled with violence hidden just underneath the illusion of sterility presented by the snow.
Our entrance into this story is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), our de facto gunslinger. He works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting predators like wolves and mountain lions that inconvenience the farms and people in the area. He was married to Wilma (Julia Jones), and he takes their son Casey (Teo Briones) with him when he is called to the Wind River Reservation by his former in-laws to deal with a mountain lion. It is this hunt that brings us back to the mystery girl. As Cory rides his snowmobile, he comes across the trail she left behind and follows it to the body, now frozen in the snow. Cory recognizes her, and so she is given a name: Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a close friend of the family. This discovery brings FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to Wind River, and so begins the unspooling of the crimes that led to Natalie’s tragic death.
As is the case with great thrillers, the mystery itself is only an excuse to examine other truths, and this film is no exception. Hollywood films have a long history of subjugating Native characters to little more than supporting visuals, hardly worthy of even being called a supporting roles. The most affecting performances in this film, though, come from Native American characters, portrayed by Native American actors. When Cory comes to see Martin (Gil Birmingham), Natalie’s father, the grief-stricken wail Martin lets loose when he sees Cory has stuck with me. Birmingham has only a handful of scenes in the film, but each provides a glimpse into the complex relationship between grief and anger in the wake of tragedy. However, the most memorable performance for me belongs to Kelsey Asbille and how she brings Natalie to life. Asbille only has two scenes in the film: one in the already-referenced opening sequence, and the second in a flashback depicting the events which led to her death. In mere minutes of screen time, she makes Natalie unforgettable. She emanates a strength that makes Natalie’s near impossible tasks of attempted survival seem entirely possible. It begs comparison to Sheryl Lee and how she brought life to Laura Palmer in the original run of Twin Peaks (1990-91). Asbille, however, had significantly less screen time. We see her love, and fight, and run.
However, the majority of the narrative belongs to two characters, Cory and Jane, and it is through their relationship that some of the film’s greatest strengths and weaknesses stem. Their first moments together feature some of the film’s most pained dialogue, showing the downside that sometimes comes from a screenwriter also serving as director: there is no one to reign in some of the script’s less deft moments. Sheridan is prone to monologues, and they served previous scripts Hell or High Water (2016) and Sicario (2015) well under the supervision of David McKenzie and Denis Villeneuve. Here, especially in some of Cory and Jane’s exchanges, less would most definitely have been more.
Nonetheless, Olsen and Renner are both outstanding in their roles. Cory is a brilliant variation on the vengeful gunslinger character, operating outside the law at times, but always for a moral purpose. Renner give both his fury and tenderness exceptional poignancy. When he tells Jane about his memories with Natalie, we hear both in equal measure. It is captivating. But, he is only half of the pairing. In a performance worthy of comparison to Jodie Foster’s work in Silence of the Lambs (1991), Olsen brings Jane to life as an intensely focused and passionate agent, cognizant of what she does not know about Wind River. The FBI give her no support, but she refuses to give up on the Reservation the way past investigators have. Sheridan makes the shrewd choice to characterize their relationship as one similar to father-daughter rather than what would have been a distracting and unfortunate romance.
All of these facets serve the overarching narrative, stated by the postscript over the final shots: “There is no data on missing Native American women.” Sheridan has taken the separate parts of the classic western, the gunslinger, the imposing American landscape, the struggle between law and chaos, and planted it in a narrative that directly addresses the savage way that the United States has treated Native Americans for centuries. This is not a film that attempts to offer easy answers to the questions it poses, but rather challenges the viewer to reckon with the reality that the mythic West possesses very little to be proud of, no matter what the genre used to claim. Wind River is a bleak and brutal film. It is imperfect, showing the growing pains of a director who has not yet perfected the ability to fend off self-indulgence, but it is resonant in ways that fuse it to the present while staying in conversation with the past.