Review: Wind River

Wind River is a difficult movie to write about in an irreverent tone. The film centers on the investigation that follows the discovery of the frozen corpse of a teenaged, Native American woman by a hunter for US Fish and Wildlife Services (Jeremy Renner) on the titular Indian reservation. When an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in from out of state, she finds herself relying on the hunter’s knowledge of tracking and the reservation (both the landscape and the human element) to figure out what happened. The film is a mystery but it’s not really about uncovering a killer (the death that sets the film into motion isn’t even labeled a homicide). It may be wearing the trappings of a pulpy noir but, like most films noir, it is about more than what is on the surface.  Wind River is about grief, disenfranchisement and how the environment shapes people for better or worse.

Writer and director Tyler Sheridan seems to have an interest in exploring frontiers. However, rather than exciting or hopeful, Sheridan’s frontiers are liminal spaces, almost forgotten or certainly abandoned by polite, modern society. He penned Sicario and Hell or High Water which explored the US-Mexican border and rural Texas respectively. As the old cliché goes, the location becomes a character. In Wind River, the environment is an overbearing force. The Wyoming spring brings blizzards, and mountain lions and wolves lurk in the distance. It’s cruel and fickle, but despite its harshness it is all the people who live on the reservation know.

There’s a lot to love about Wind River. The performances are excellent especially from Renner and Gil Birmingham who plays the dead girl’s father. There’s actual tension, especially where the film’s brutal violence is concerned.  I also found the sound design to be especially effective at creating atmosphere. Sheridan writes dialogue that snaps and crackles like the crisp Wyoming air. And it’s hard to argue with the cinematography, but then again it’s hard to go wrong when shooting a landscape like this.

There are a few troubling elements, however. Mostly in terms of the film’s choices for protagonists. Olsen isn’t given much to do, continually relying on Renner. While the film asserts she is tough and a survivor, it feels a little like lip service. The bigger issue, however, is that while focusing on one of America’s most marginalized groups, the film has two white protagonists. In spite of this, the choice to tell this story still feels important. It’s certainly a step up from Ben Foster crowing that he’s a Comanche in Hell or High Water. The film does shine a light on issues most people ignore; it ends with some statistics that are truly chilling. Sorry folks, these cold metaphor/puns are the closest I can get to a joke.

Cake Rating: No cake necessary. But I think I’m going to start investigating what soup is best for curing a second-hand chill and white guilt.

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