A NATIVE AMERICAN woman runs for her life, bloodied and barefooted through dense snow. She finally succumbs to the cold, the exhaustion, perhaps the fear. So begins this magnificent tale of loss, grief, survival and racism.
The arc of the story follows a sort of whodunnit: Jane Banner, an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen), is sent to investigate the crime. She is clearly out of her depth (signaled by the inappropriateness of her clothes). It’s a reflection of the contempt the FBI (here a stand in for US authorities) have for Native American affairs. From the coroner’s perspective, it looks like a crime (the woman’s been raped), but the death – essentially her lungs bled due to the freezing air- was that of natural causes. This means that agent Banner can’t send for back up (and more experienced assistance). And as she’s counseled by the local tribal police chief, Ben (Graham Greene), “This isn’t a place where you get back up. This is a place where you’re on your own”. She and Ben marshal the forces of the local Indian law enforcement officers and rope in the tracking skills of a local hunter, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner).
And so begins the chase, in whirling ceaseless snow, to track down the killer, or killers.
The tracking, the usual police procedural, the piecing together of clues and witnesses are really just the frame upon which writer/director Taylor Sheridan hangs a much richer meditation on the human spirit’s will to survive even in the face of agonizing loss. And the losses in “Wind River” multiple and echo each other, laddering up from the personal to the tribal. The murder of the woman, Natalie (Kelly Asbille) and the resultant loss to her family seem to parallel a similar loss experienced by Cory and his – now estranged – wife, Wilma (Julia Jones; “Twilight Saga”). Each family faces its own agony and disintegration due to these personal losses, in the same way that the community itself begins to fall apart (drugs, petty crime etc) from the bigger losses of land and self worth.
“They took everything from us” Martin (Gil Birmingham), Natalie’s dad tells Corey, “And all we’re left with is the silence and the snow”. They’re not even left with the bonds of history, as these identity-forming building blocks themselves are slowly beginning to dissolve. There’s a haunting moment when Martin sits alone in the bleak coldness, his face painted in an approximation of “Indian war paint”. Why? What does the pattern he’s painted mean? He doesn’t know. “There’s no one around any more to instruct you about this shit” he tells Corey.
And yet… for the inhabitants of this God-forsaken part of Wyoming, the Wind River Indian Reservation, there’s a real feeling of community.
Nature is as hostile, or at least indifferent to them as the Government. You just have to stoically understand its idiosyncrasies and survive it…with dignity and grace. Not so the other group of people we’re introduced to: a group of White oil men, living in a bunker. If the Indians have been denied the fruits of the bigger society, this group has been freed from its constraints. Like the wild wolves and the sheep-killing lions Corey tracks, they too are a feral pack for whom attractive, Native American women are fair game.
For director Sheridan, “natural causes” and this element of an indifferent, racist White society are the same. Both need to be, at best, outwitted and survived.
The movie ends with a chilling coda: “Statistics are kept for every group of missing people except native American women. Nobody knows how many may be missing.”
Jeremy Renner is as engagingly credible as he always is. He is an empathetic, tender-hearted loner; a man adjusting to his own terrible loss. But he’s also a hunter; a man who can be one with the snowy silences, the blank white absence of color, and ever ready to unleash his hounds of war as needs be. As Jane, Elizabeth Olsen (a genuine talent, lost to the cannibalistic Avengers monster) reminds me of a young Jodie Foster; she’s a Clarice Starling in no man’s land: hesitant, naive and fearful, but resolute and with enough spirit to take on whatever nature and feral man can throw at her.
Cinematographer Ben Richardson (“The Fault in our Stars”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) builds layers of white with shadows and blackness to create this distinct, menacing world…so that even in some of the slower moments (the movie starts at a very measured pace), there is a visual sense of danger.
But this is Taylor Sheridan’s minor masterpiece. He wrote and directed it (This is only his second major movie); and is emerging as one of the better, more interesting writers (and now director) around. Before this, he penned the superb “Sicario” and the Oscar nominated “Hell or High Water”. Oh, and just to round off his resume, he’s been acting in movies for the last twenty years.
In development is his next venture as writer/director, “Olympus” about a decorated soldier who may be a god. Can’t wait.
WIND RIVER: Director/Writter: Taylor Sheridan. With: Jeremy Renner, Elisabeth Olsen, Julia Jones, Graham Greene. Cinematographer: Ben Richardson. Production Designer: Neil Spisak (“Terminator Genisys”)