A happy yarn from the writer of Sicario
This is not a happy movie. Not in the slightest. This film is the second time the writer and Sons of Anarchy actor, Taylor Sheridan, directs his own film after his runaway success with the excellent Sicario and the even better Hell or High Water. Both films made my top ten in the preceding years as well. So, he’s clearly written some fine works but these are also bleak looks into the darkness that infect men’s souls while also serving as a helpful deconstruction of the harmful effects of toxic masculinity. Basically, not very light material, which explains why I’ve been putting actually sitting down for this movie for a while. But hey, Thanksgiving leftovers kept me company through a well-made but absolutely soul-crunching experience, so let’s wrap the weekend with a look into Wind River.
Jeremy Renner portrays Cory Lambert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hunter operating in the Wind River Indian Reservation of Wyoming. While tracking mountain lions, he makes the horrifying discovery of a dead young Arapaho woman frozen in the snow. Further, she also appears to have been raped, which leads the local police call forth the FBI. Unfortunately for them, a single inexperienced agent is sent forth by the name of Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). After the autopsy report could not confirm the woman’s death as a homicide, thereby eliminating the need for an FBI investigation, Banner instead opts to stay in Wyoming and attempt to solve the murder case with the help of Lambert, who decides to assist her after recently losing his own teenage daughter to similar circumstances as the victim.
As you can tell from my plot synopsis, this is probably Sheridan’s bleakest work yet. The man is attracted to discussing world-weary individuals being put through the wringer as they deal with an unjust and uncaring world. But whereas Sicario was utilizing the drug war as a means to discuss sexual assault as a weapon and Hell or High Water was utilizing modern bank robbers to demonstrate frustrations with the financial market pushing people over the edge; Wind River instead chooses a different topic. It’s focus is on the rampant poverty among American indigenous tribes and especially on how crimes against native women are essentially ignored by the Federal government and a severely underfunded local police force. It just would have been nice to have your protagonist actually go through this harrowing experience, rather than as an outsider peering into a dire situation.
I’m sure Sheridan had the best of intentions, but having his protagonists be a man and a woman who were not raised into the same plight as the Arapaho tribe seems like a major missed opportunity. It’s abated somewhat with Jeremy Renner’s character being a divorced father of an Arapaho family, but even some characters still regard him with the same level of distance they ascribe to Elizabeth Olsen’s character. This gives the effect that we are merely watching tourists into an awful situation, rather than witnessing active participants in a despicable world. In Sicario, Emily Blunt’s character’s entire worldview as a law enforcement officer is upended when she’s partnered with a hitman with a grudge to fight back against the cartels with the same level of perversive warfare they utilize. In Hell or High Water, we sympathize with Chris Pine’s character who has essentially made a deal with the Devil in a desperate last stand to secure his family’s future after it was unfairly taken advantage of by sly businessmen. The protagonists of Sheridan’s previous works have already seen some messed up things because that’s their everyday life. Wind River‘s protagonist, meanwhile, is getting some carthasis out of his system by vowing to investigate a disappearance not unlike what happened to his own daughter and ensure the perpetrator does not live to see tomorrow.
What we have is instead a roundabout vengeance story line, Death Wish-style, in which the vigilante is avenging someone else’s family to assuage his own perceived failure to protect his own family unit. Now there’s nothing wrong with a vendetta tale, hell it popular culture essentially uses such tropes to justify heinous acts both in media and sometimes in real life. And if Wind River was merely seeking to be a yarn in the mold of The Punisher that would be fine. But I do take issue that it’s also trying to be a film that discusses the inequality facing a marginalized group…by not featuring any of these marginalized individuals in the role of the avenger. The film veers close to coming into contact with that loathsome “white savior” trope that has hampered my enjoyment of even great films. Now mercifully, that uncomfortable angle didn’t ruin what was otherwise a very solid film overall, but it does explain why I’m not bathing this film in my tongue sweats the way I did with Sheridan’s previous works.
Because Wind River is, if nothing else, a damn great crime thriller at its core. Renner and Olsen both give subtle nuance to their roles, particularly the former as I find this film to be his strongest output since The Hurt Locker. Renner displays a ton of humanity into the role of someone confident in his own abilities, but is trying desperately to contain how sad and angry he has become on the inside. This is especially notable in one scene where Renner explains the fate that befell his own daughter, and how powerless he felt in the aftermath of the family tragedy. It’s a strong scene among many, including one featuring Olsen as a woman fully cognizant that their is major disconnect between herself and the Arapaho culture where she recognizes just how badly she disrespected a grieving family.
Further, Sheridan displays some impressive skills with mastery of sweeping vistas and one intense gunfight towards the end of the film. I really appreciated how well the man can control the scene with multiple assailants firing on one another in close range as they quickly try to get their bearings straight in order to survive. Furthermore, the dialogue is another strength Sheridan continues from his previous efforts by injecting as much personality he can into even bit roles that have two to three minutes of screentime a piece. I mean I was able to figure everything I needed to know about Jon Bernthal’s (yeah he’s in this for a very brief few moments) character with some clever word choice and Bernthal’s own affectations for delivering lines.
Despite my own perceived dissonance with some major story beats, there’s a solid technical work of art to be found here. While I admired Sheridan’s previous efforts more, I was still captivated by what I saw from start to finish. I merely wish their was more of a way for the film to tie back into Sheridan’s own stated intention to highlight the grave injustices facing modern indigenous tribes in the United States. Had he accomplished that task, I think I would have been looking at a strong contender for my Best of 2017. As it stands, the film is good but for me, it’s a low…