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Review: Wind River

by Lynn Lee

It should come as no surprise that writer-director Taylor Sheridan, currently hot in Hollywood after his Oscar screenplay nomination for Hell or High Water, is an actual, bona fide cowboy.  Perhaps that’s why his work feels like such a throwback—to an era in which quietly capable men, silently toting unspoken burdens, took on the joyless task of meting out frontier justice.  At the same time, he’s shown a canny gift for placing such old-school archetypes in a distinctly modern, of-this-moment social and political context, making their struggles feel unexpectedly timely or, rather, timeless.  That gift is on ample display in his new film, Wind River, which is now in wide release after nabbing the best directing prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes earlier this year.

Set on a remote, wintry Indian reservation in Montana, the film marks the third installment in a loose trilogy of Westerns penned by Sheridan (the first two being Sicario and Hell or High Water), though Wind River is the first one he directed...

The movie centers on Cory Lambert (a fantastic Jeremy Renner), a Fish & Wildlife Service agent tasked with protecting local livestock from wild predators (if you detect a giant honking metaphor in that, you’re not wrong), who discovers the dead body of a young Native American woman miles from the nearest shelter.  The victim shows signs of having been sexually assaulted and having run for her life – barefoot in the snow – before succumbing to the frigid cold.  Tribal police call in the FBI and get a solo rookie agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who’s greener than a Christmas tree but smart enough to realize she needs backup.  She turns to Cory, with his deep knowledge of the area, longstanding ties to the Indian community, and extensive experience as a hunter and tracker, to assist in the investigation.  It gradually emerges that he has his own, deeply personal reasons for doing so.

Thus summarized, the movie might sound like little more than a glorified crime procedural; Sheridan himself has jokingly referred to it as “CSI Wyoming.”  Pedestrian or no, Sheridan puts the mystery through its pacings with impressive economy and speed, amping up the suspense and underscoring without belaboring the ugliness of the underlying crime before taking an almost Tarantino-esque turn near the end.  More importantly, his handling of the broader context shows a sensitive touch one doesn’t commonly see in this genre.  While there’s no fat on the movie’s narrative bones, there is a striking richness in the characterization of both the people and the place surrounding it.  As he did in Hell or High Water, Sheridan takes special pains to draw a stark portrait of a straitened community in which most of the inhabitants have grown inured to living in a constant state of quiet desperation.  He stops short of poverty porn, however, allowing the most significant characters their full measure of grace and dignity.  Cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) imbues the snow-covered landscape—occasionally cut through by the sharp swaths of snowmobiles—with a harsh beauty that emphasizes both the elemental simplicity of this world and the corrosive effect of malignant outsiders.  As Cory responds when the movie’s main villain (in one of the few scenes that feels overwrought) shrieks about the snow and the silence, snow and silence is all that the natives of this place were given, yet they still found a way to survive.

Of course, the fact that it’s Cory who gets to say this points to the elephant in the room, which is the movie’s serious case of white male savior syndrome.  (I found it unintentionally funny that Renner literally spends so much of the film – including his most heroic moments – in literal snow camouflage.)  To be fair, the film is respectful in its treatment of the Native American characters, featuring standout turns from Graham Greene as the wry and dryly sardonic tribal police chief and Gil Birmingham (who played Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water) as the victim’s grieving father.  But this prompts the inevitable question of why they needed to be supporting rather than lead – even if the only answer is “Because Hollywood thinks no one would see the alternative.”  The movie’s depiction of women is problematic, too, although in some ways an improvement for Sheridan in that both Olsen’s character (unlike Emily Blunt’s in Sicario) and the victim (Kelsey Chow) gain more rather than less agency as the movie goes on.  Still, the power dynamic between Olsen and Renner remains so skewed that I couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting it would have been if Cory had been an experienced, capable, all-knowing middle-aged woman and the rookie FBI agent a naïve, in-over-his-head younger man.  There’s no reason that story couldn’t have been just as effective, if not more so.

Well, ok, there is one reason, and it’s an important one: Renner.  His performance is not only the linchpin of the movie but the best thing about it, exuding just the right balance of gravitas and vulnerability as he peels back the layers of Cory’s patient endurance to reveal the still-raw pain at his core.  It’s easily the strongest work he’s done since The Hurt Locker.  So even as I chafe against his casting here, I can’t really complain about the end result.  At its heart, this isn’t a whodunit or a procedural but a portrayal of grief and the acceptance of living with such grief.  That this type of acceptance is chiefly coded as masculine stoicism doesn’t detract from its fundamental power.  As embodied by Renner, it elevates Wind River from a merely well made film to a profound emotional statement.

Grade: B+
Oscar chances?  Probably not, though Renner deserves consideration


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Reader Comments (12)

I am saddened by your lack of shoutout to the TV series Longmire and the movie's continuation of the Longmire tradition of a high body count in rural Wyoming. I mean if nothing else, the 10 or 12 people who died on the course of the movie is quite Longmire-esq and fitting given that the reservation on which the plot occurs is bordered by the Absaroka Range from which the fictional setting of Longmire takes its name.

August 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJLR

This movie really made me hanker for more good ol' fashioned murder mysteries. I guess procedurals if you want to call them that (but many consider it a dirty word). I enjoyed this one a lot, until it does the exact same thing that SICARIO did. I thought SICARIO was quite extraordinary, really, and WIND RIVER can't quite match it for filmmaker bravura, but its a cracker of a mystery and I found myself engrossed by the story.

Graham Greene was best in show, much like Gil Birmingham was best in show in HELL OR HIGH WATER.

August 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

JLR, ha - I know who you are. ;) I did mention Longmire (which also does a good job exploring the intersection of federal, local, and tribal criminal jurisdiction and the attendant tensions) in my original draft, but the review was getting too long so I cut it.

Glenn - what did you think was the exact same thing that SICARIO did? The revenge-y climax? Or the whole wolves vs. sheep pontification?

I really like Sheridan's stuff. His scripts are so lean and mean and old-school, and yet they resonate. As a director he's not quite up there with Villeneuve, but he acquits himself well.

August 16, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

I really enjoyed this movie as well - fantastic film!

August 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRod

I haven't seen the film so probably best not to judge but from watching the trailer it looked like Olsons role should've been played by a much older woman. Like Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, stop taking work from great, underused middle aged actresses.

August 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNorman

Lylee, SPOILERS FOR EVERYONE ELSE, but the way he has his female protagonist get shot and then sits out the finale.

August 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Glenn: oh yeah, gotcha. Somehow that had slipped my memory of Sicario - though I remember her being sidelined, while Benicio del Toro's character became front and center.

Norman: I dunno, the character is clearly meant to be young and inexperienced. I do think Olsen's casting amplifies that impression because she's got such a baby face, though she's perfectly fine in the role.

August 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

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September 5, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteramul

All the actors were great.
The story was engaging, and I felt the people's pain.
It was quite an emotional journey.

I just had a problem with the sound in some parts of the movie.
I would have made sure that the sound was better.
For example , in the hospital scene, I could hardly understand the dialogue due to sound issues, but one can decipher that there were going thru some painful experiences.

Cinematography was great overall and brought to the emotional journey..but at times the shaking of the camera(not sure if they used a steady camera or not?) was distracting.

I would have wished that there was more exploration of the Indian reservation characters, such as the dad, the mom, and the daughter ...and some of the environment in which they live where ....prison is a "rite of passage" for some of the other characters.
Indians need to be counted and be equal with others in the USA.

The story could have shed some light on some possible solutions...and maybe it was hinted in the movie, when the Sherif said...that in these are on your own...hinting at the alienation that Indians experience.
Overall the movie was quite touching and maybe that is a beginning to that exploration of possible solutions.

This movie landed firmly for me and has stuck the past two weeks. With its acknowledged weaknesses in terms of who has how much agency, it really earned my emotional investment. Renner is worthy of a nom.

September 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKJ

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