Wind River

A mystery/thriller with a good heart but some nasty violence

“Why is it that whenever you people try to help us, you always insult us first, huh?” This line from Wind River, spoken by Martin (Gil Birmingham), a resident of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, is an example of that rarest of features in the history of North American cinema: treating Native Americans with understanding, honesty, and respect. Indeed, it’s a travesty that so few films about Native Americans and Aboriginal people have been made since the countless Westerns about “cowboys and Indians.” Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) was a huge step in the right direction, but it was about a white man acting as a savior to his inaccurately portrayed Sioux neighbors.

An example of that rarest of features in the history of North American cinema: treating Native Americans with understanding, honesty and respect.

Coincidentally, Wind River stars one of the First Nations actors (Graham Greene) from Dances with Wolves while also featuring white protagonists trying to save the day for a Native American community. However, Wind River’s portrayal of the difficult life of today’s Native American people is unique, brutally accurate, and sympathetic. Taylor Sheridan, its writer and director, deserves much praise for this. While Sheridan is white, he spent time living on a reservation in California years before making this film, which is clearly a work of love and is dedicated to the many missing and murdered Native American and Aboriginal women in North America.

Unfortunately, Sheridan, who wrote the brilliant Sicario and Hell or High Water, can’t get away from his penchant for over-the-top Tarantino-esque violence. Wind River is not really an “action” thriller, but just two brief violent scenes are enough to turn many viewers away and, for me, keep the film from being the classic it might have been.

Wind River, which is inspired by true events, stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a wildlife officer/game tracker who stumbles across the body of his close friend’s teenage daughter lying in the snow in the middle of nowhere (there’s lots of nowhere in Wyoming) on the Wind River Indian Reservation. It looks like foul play, so the FBI is called in. But it sends only one agent: the young Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who has no idea what she’s getting into (or how to dress for the weather). Ben (Greene), the world-weary local police chief, is more than a little worried about Jane’s abilities, but she starts her investigation off on the right foot by asking Cory to assist her. Cory, Jane, and Ben work together to track down (literally) the crime and the criminals. Along the way, Jane learns a few things about Native American cultures from people like Cory’s friend Martin (who directs the above quote at her), and the parents of Cory’s ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones), Dan and Alice Crowheart (Apesanahkwat and Tantoo Cardinal).

The acting by all those mentioned is natural and terrific, with a special nod to Olsen and Renner (it may be his best role, which is saying something). Wind River is a character-driven mystery/thriller, and all of its characters are well written and largely well developed (I would have liked to know a lot more about Ben’s story), although Cory, like other Sheridan characters, is much too hard (too macho?) for my liking. Given Cory’s many softer moments, this is both inconsistent and disappointing.

Nevertheless, the writing as a whole is exceptional, with lots of Sheridan’s brilliant dialogue (especially evident in scenes involving Native American characters). The theme of grief is particularly well presented in Wind River, as evidenced by this quote (Cory speaking to Martin): “If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain, take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

Given the setting for the film (winter in Wyoming), the cinematography could hardly go wrong. Full of snow and gorgeous mountains, it was all I could have wished for. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis was also very strong. Together, the cinematography and music created a haunting noir atmosphere that was just right.

Wind River might have been a masterpiece. But the violent denouement, which felt more than a little anticlimactic and ended with a bad line by Cory, made me shake my head with disappointment, imagining what could have been. In a dark, offbeat modern-Western thriller like Wind River, maybe such violence is not out of place. But there is so much in this film I would have wanted to recommend to a wider audience. Now I can only recommend it to those with a high tolerance for violence and disturbing scenes.

Wind River is rated R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.