“Wind River” Provides A Window To An Important Message
The film’s incredibly important message is a satisfying emotional punch, despite its tonal problems
Watching a film where you know nothing is a curse and a blessing. Going into a film with tons of hype and excitement — and ultimately being disappointed by said film — is a curse many go through in these day and age of film. On the other hand, experiencing a film with no prior knowledge can be an exciting, thrilling adventure.
I knew absolutely nothing of Wind River. I had a free day and was sad to see The Glass Castle receiving horrible reviews. On a whim, I saw Wind River. I am SO GLAD I did not read the reviews before seeing the film. Many hyped this to be the best of 2017. Leaving the theater, googling to see what others thought, I was floored. Wind River brings to light an important topic, delivering that message with some great skill. Its flaws, however, are too prevalent to ignore.
Wind River is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who penned films such as Sicario and Hell or High Water. The story, set in Wyoming, details a murder investigation on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The film follows two characters Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a hunter for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a fish-out-of-water FBI Agent. Through their connections and insight, the two unravel the truth behind the death of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), a Native American woman found dead in the wilderness. The film explores relationships between exes, family members and different cultures. The message is bold and impactful. However, how the film decides to share these ideas left me empty and disappointed.
I love films that share another point of view of life. Away from the city streets and the cluster of buildings, the film takes place in wide open Wyoming. To many city-folk, this may seem like another planet: where the population density is sparse. Sheridan does a wonderful job at visually capturing this world. Sheridan sprinkles in some impactful wide shots that illustrate the openness and enormity of the Wyoming wilderness. (As I always think: If you are going to shoot a western, the wider the shot the better). Despite the chilly sensation I felt while watching (I needed a hat and gloves), I enjoyed the characters dealing with nature. As if solving a murder is not hard enough, blizzards, mountains and wildlife does not make that job any easier — which makes it far more interesting.
Wind River gets its name from taking place on the Wind River reservation, another strong aspect of the film. I am fascinated by Native American cultures and histories and having a window into the world of the Eastern Shoshones and Northern Arapaho’s lives (the tribes that inhabit the Wind River reservation) is a credit to Sheridan. Though our main two characters are not Shoshone or Arapaho (hold that thought on Renner), they must abide by the customs of these tribes. For Olsen, this is much harder. She is a fresh face FBI agent who is thrown in the middle of a Wyoming murder case. Though her story is not as extreme as other examples of this fish-out-of-water environment (Dance with Wolves, anyone?), having empathy and understanding others from another background is something Olsen learns to do throughout the film.
In a way, Olsen stands in for the audience. Sheridan wants us to recognize these different cultures and the unfortunate misfortunes that plague Native American societies. At the end of the film, title cards provide the information that no statistics are kept about missing Native American women. No one knows how many are missing. Though disappearances and murders are unimaginable tragedy wherever they occur, for it to happen within a Native American community only adds to its tragic nature. Its an emotional punch that the film delivers with power and care. The main strength of this film is delivering on that intense emotion felt by those who take part in this story. The setting is cold and bare; the characters and their interactions with one another are anything but their surroundings.
The film is not without its problems. There are about three or four stories in Wind River that would have made an excellent base for a film. One of these stories includes Renner’s character, who lost a child of his own, dealing with a son and ex-wife, Wilma Lambert (Julia Jones). They are introduced in the film to provide the audience exposition for Renner’s character, but fail to really mean anything significant in the context of the film’s plot. The scenes with Renner’s family is all exposition, leaving me without a full connection to these characters.
Wilma is part of one of the local tribes on the reservation — if it was said in the film, I missed that part. Renner is close with those of the community and has the respect of many. (His understanding of tribal costumes happened off camera, furthering why I think Olsen stands in as the audience.) But a film could have easily been made about Renner overcoming his personal life to help solve this murder. This film is not that at all and having those scenes in the movie felt off.
The audience gets to see how the parents of the Natalie, the missing woman, react to the news of her death. It is an emotional scene that delivers the power one would expect, but the parents are in the film for one scene. The audience does not get their full perspective on this tragedy. There is a gripping story on how the father and mother handle this horrific situation, but Sheridan moves on. Their story is not the one the film wants to tell. Though, for me, I was way more interested in the emotional impact of Natalie’s disappearance and death within the community than watching a rookie FBI agent and a hunter solve the murder case.
Needless to say, the film has tonal problems. The ending action scene is tense, brutal and incredibly well shot. There is an action scene mid-point that ultimately pulled me away from the film’s emotional core. When Olsen and the sheriff (Graham Greene) come across a trailer to investigate a lead, they are blindsided with pepper spray. The scene turns into Olsen, partially blind, walking through the trailer trying to shoot at the assailant. It is the worst part of the film. All the build-up emotion is gone and the scene is disorientating — on purpose, I will admit. The scene is followed by another extremely important emotional moment, rendering myself in confusion why an action sequence of that nature was really a smart move.
Wind River delivers on its vital message: the plethora of Native American tribes (especially the women of these tribes) still encounter and fight inequalities today. There is enough moments that are incredibly moving and done tastefully that make Wind River a successful look at this problem. However, the film looses steam with its tonal problems and lack of focus at times. I wanted to stay with a certain storylines, characters but the film jumps to a storyline with a lesser emotional connection. The film should be viewed once, but revisiting it might be asking too much.