Wind River March 9, 2018
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
woman runs six miles in the snow in the opening of Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River (2017). She is breathless and barefoot, eluding someone, something. Blood specks her clothing; lassitude increasingly deepens in her eyes. Off screen, she dies. Later, the coroner declares she’s a victim of exposure and pulmonary hemorrhaging, quickened by the sub-zero temperatures of the Wyoming wilderness in which she perished. He suspects the cause of her demise was underlyingly sinister, but the lacking of concrete physical wounds and general evidence makes him unable to call this death a homicide.
We’re certain it was, though. And so does Jane (Elizabeth Olsen, terrific), the no-nonsense FBI agent flown in from Las Vegas to investigate. And this pisses her off: when a medical examiner says something wasn’t murder, the bureau cannot provide additional backup.
God knows she needs it. So she, feeling a sort of inexplicable tie to the case that leaves her unable to simply walk away, enlists the help of Cory (Jeremy Renner, a throwback), an expert marksman with a tragic connection to the victim. A makeshift investigation ensues, leading to the sort of violent standoff that always seems to inevitably occur in slow-burning whodunits like this one.
If there are any familiarities in Wind River, however, they are surface level: this is a genre film that structurally follows the patterns of copious police procedurals but, content-wise, has much more on its mind than amassing tight sequences of suspense to help work toward an explosive finale. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a masterclass thriller: it is, which isn’t a surprise considering the track record of its writer and director, Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, 2015; Hell or High Water, 2016).
But it could also work strictly as a social drama. Because it takes place in rural Wyoming – specifically the Wind River Indian Reservation, where racial and social tensions are high – it is understood that what we’re watching is not necessarily sensationalized pulp but rather a fictionalized take on something that happens on the regular. The murder victim who drives the film is Native American, and something the film pushes is the reality that crimes against Native Americans are undercovered and rarely reported.
Before the closing credits start to roll, Sheridan places a chilling quote at the center of the screen: “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.” Certainly, much of Wind River serves as a thrill ride. But in moments where our adrenaline levels are particularly upped, we have to consider that what we’re seeing is not a one-off noir story but rather something that complements a larger narrative that needs to be addressed.
The film summarizes what’s made Sheridan one of the more interesting popcorn film directors of the last 10 years. Although he’s worked in the movie industry for less than a decade – he’s primarily been a television actor – he can be depended on as a fully formed filmmaker easily able to churn out recognizable thrillers of unusual depth. Sicario made the drug war a tangible reality for privileged audiences; Hell or High Water simplistically was a feature about a pair of bank robbers, but more complexly also took the time to sensitively hover over the ubiquitous classism and racism that so often characterizes small American towns. Wind River is comparably thoughtful. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the “purposeful pop” concept, but good. B+