Wind River” is an unusually emotional thriller, setting a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olson) up with a seasoned partner (Jeremy Renner) to solve the murder of a young woman on a bleak Native American reservation in Wyoming. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, it does not live up to his Oscar nominated “Hell or High Water,” for which he was the screenwriter, but it certainly stands out as a beautiful, sensitive crime drama.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a seasoned wildlife officer tasked with hunting predators on a massive Wyoming reservation, is searching for a lion when he finds the dead body of a young woman. She is a close family friend, and the horror of her death connects Cory to his own personal tragedy. The woman, Natalie, was the best friend of Cory’s own daughter, who died in the snow three years earlier. A scene of grieving between him and Natalie’s father is one of the film’s most powerful.
Cory was married to a Native American woman, and remains very involved with their son and her family. He is a trusted ally of the Native community, unlike Jane Banner (Olsen), the FBI agent sent to work the case. Jane displays full knowledge of the FBI rules and regulations, but is literally ill-equipped for the brutal conditions, and must borrow a snow suit from Cory’s late daughter’s closet. Nevertheless, she reminded me of another deeply committed young FBI agent, Clarice Starling, a woman using her many talents to help other women.
The setting of the reservation gives many layers of meaning to the proceedings, and questions of jurisdiction between FBI and tribal police underscore the larger themes of injustice against Native Americans. Canadian First Nations actor, Graham Greene, brings a much appreciated level of dry humor as the seasoned chief of the tribal police, a world weary gentleman all too aware of the terrible problems plaguing the people under his care.
Jane is the typical fish out of water at first, bringing textbook knowledge to fight a problem in the complex real world, while the men she meets are the opposite; their strength is their hard won experience. Fortunately, the script gives these characters a chance to work together, and some of Jane’s best character development shows when she uses her procedural knowledge to make the system work better to solve the crime. When well-intentioned characters bond, it gives us a break from the bleak violence they are investigating.
“Hell or High Water,” which also had a social consciousness driving a crime story, was a more complex and better film. For one thing, Jeff Bridges was in it, but overall it just had more going on. It was funnier, more exciting, and more suspenseful. “Wind River” pursues one story, to solve the death of one person, and while the socioeconomic factors surrounding the crime are explored, the theme does not meld as beautifully with the plot as it did in Sheridan’s earlier film.
What makes “Wind River” unusually effective, however, is how it makes room for grief. It honors the story’s dead. The heroes, in the film’s denouement, focus on what has been lost, and the story spends as much time memorializing the victims as it does tracking the villains. It is a thoughtful and tragic film.
The stated purposed of “Wind River” film is to expose the exploitation of Native American women; ironically, this film was distributed by Harvey Weinstein. When the scandal broke, the filmmaker and his stars made the decision to take back control of their film, and refuse to do any further publicity for it, even as Oscar momentum and prestigious awards have already begun to pile up for “Wind River,” until certain demands were met. Weinstein and the Weinstein Company have been scrubbed from future releases of the film, and all future profits will be donated to the Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and perhaps this outcome will strengthen the film’s story even further.
“Wind River” is currently available to rent.