“I get so mad, I want to fight the whole world,” bemoans Chip, a drug-addicted young Indian man, handcuffed in the back of a police car. “You got any idea what that feels like?” “I do,” answers Cory, a Wildlife Service agent, still grieving the loss of his daughter three years prior. “I decided to fight the feeling instead. I figured the world would win.” Solemn reflections on anger and loss such as this characterize the philosophical musings of Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, an uncompromising crime drama as contemplative and lacking in subtlety as the above quote.
Deep in rural Wyoming, life is a hard-fought struggle. At Wind River Indian Reservation, winter is severe and unpredictable, with blizzards that erupt out of tranquility and disappear for minutes at a time. When the snow isn’t pelting its residents, the sub-zero temperatures are the real threat, as frostbite and death from exposure are common occurrences for those living there. This is where Cory Lambert lost his daughter to the cold. It’s also where Natalie Hanson is found dead in the snow, barefoot, raped, and miles from the nearest encampment.
Divorced, somber, and hard-working, Cory (Jeremy Renner) inevitably connects the event with the loss of his own daughter. As an expert hunter for the US Wildlife Service, he is determined to track and bring justice to Natalie’s predator in the same way he executes wolves and mountain lions. Wind River’s tribal police, with six members tasked with keeping order in a territory the size of Rhode Island, call in the FBI for assistance. In flies Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson) from Las Vegas: underdressed and unprepared for the cold, but with tenacity and passion to spare.
After collaborating on-screen twice before in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, Jeremy Renner joins Elizabeth Olson once again under much more grounded circumstances. Renner doesn’t disappoint in a performance distinct from his past dramatic work as a gruff and resourceful outdoorsman still in mourning. Olson formidably impresses as deglamourized agent Jane Banner, convincingly fierce and committed to justice. Sicario alum and expert character actor Jon Bernthal also shows up. His character will surprise those familiar with his past work.
Wind River is the sophomore directorial effort from Taylor Sheridan, who debuted with the obscure horror flick Vile in 2012, but is better known for writing 2015’s Sicario and last-year’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, as well as for portraying David Hale on Sons of Anarchy. Wind River is a respectable step up for the fledgling filmmaker, demonstrating a steady hand governing the production of mature dramatic content, and impressing again as a screenwriter with a story that examines rural crime while exhibiting a vivid understanding of the working class.
Sheridan’s glimpse into life on the rez is brutal and enlightening for those on the outside. Lonely, isolated homesteads separated by the hazards of nature demonstrate the consequences of the Dawes Act, and Sheridan doesn’t shy away from depicting the heightened levels of crime, addiction, and psychological disorientation running amok in many of today’s tribes. Though ultimately, this is not a film about Native Americans, as Wind River’s director and principle cast members are all white. Even so, it is refreshing to see Indian issues represented in Hollywood.
Wind River’s dark and brooding atmosphere delivers a gravitas comparable to Silence of the Lambs and many a David Fincher film. In addition to its chilly setting and persistent sense of dread, the film boasts an unflinching exploration of grief. What the film lacks, however, is an appreciation for the understated, as it delivers dialogue and symbolism that stand out like blood in the snow. Sheridan’s metaphors such as Cory shooting down a wolf or stumbling onto a lions’ den are both conspicuous and familiar, yet they are fascinating nonetheless.
Alone in his backyard, heartbroken and talked out of suicide, Natalie’s father sulks in ceremonial face paint. Cory asks him where he learned it. “I didn’t. I made it up. There’s no one left to teach me.” A moving scene such as this exemplifies Sheridan’s acute perspective of the Native psyche, and a closing title card reveals crime statistics ignore missing Native women. In a film primarily exploring the emotional journey of a white man, Wind River may be misguided labeling itself as a crusader for Native women. It remains a poignant and hard-hitting work of drama nonetheless.