A cowboy and a Native American man sit side by side, in the snow, silent.
Two stock characters that have been pitted against each other for decades in cinema, and for centuries on the violent frontier of America, come together in a weary bond of grief, resilience and quiet hope, in the final shot of Wind River. This short tableau is the centrepiece of what writer-director Taylor Sheridan is trying to say with this film, which follows the murder investigation of an eighteen-year old girl in a remote west-Wyoming Indian Reservation.
While the film is dominated by two white characters, a hunter (Jeremy Renner) and an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen), Wind River refuses to fall into the trap of becoming a white-saviour narrative, instead using Renner and Olsen as audience surrogates to gaze into the confronting and unfamiliar world of an Indian Reservation. This isn’t just some exotic backdrop to play with fish-out-of-water tropes; Sheridan has a very clear social agenda he wants to express. This is a world where systematic neglect makes law enforcement almost impossible, and poverty isn’t just a problem for society, it is society.
While this is unavoidably some woke white dude’s take on social injustice, Sheridan is more qualified than most to handle this material, having lived on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota for several years in the ’90s, making the prologue’s disclaimer of being based on a true story all the more chilling. Sheridan shows us a community in Wind River, where the loss of a family member isn’t just painful, it’s agonising, and it irrevocably changes the lives of those left behind. Wind River repeatedly reminds us how thinly-drawn the TV-police procedurals are that dominate this genre.
Nevertheless, Sheridan’s intention is not to beat us over the head with a message. He confesses that social commentary is not his main focus, but if he can make us think about some deeper issues all the better; at the end of the day Sheridan just wants to make a good movie.
In this respect, he comes through with flying colours. The photography is beautiful, capturing the snowy grandeur of the Wasatch Range, framed with a creeping score by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis. The action scenes are taut and spare, from the storming of a derelict drug-den to a shootout at an isolated drill-station. And a flashback towards the end of the film, revealing the circumstances of the murder, plays out with such harrowing craft that it could be a short film by itself.
The actors are excellent, too, and what initially seems like a bizarre casting choice, pairing Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch together, is quickly forgotten as Renner and Olsen immerse themselves in the brutal landscape. Unfortunately Olsen is never given enough screen time to fully develop, but with the relatively little time she is given does a damn good job playing her character arc as a youthful FBI agent fighting for respect. But Wind River is Renner’s story; as the heart of the film he is a man out of place in modern America and resented as a white man in his home on the Reservation. He is Sheridan’s old-world values, and it’s his interactions with the deceased girl’s father, played with striking pathos by Gil Birmingham, that bring the themes of the film into focus. From the moment they meet onscreen, embracing and weeping over the news of the death, to the silent coda of the pair seated in Birmingham’s backyard, these two become Sheridan’s hope for the White Cowboy to work together with the Native American. But by the close of the film Sheridan has shown us that however much respect is held between individuals, it’s the actions of groups, the government and gangs of thugs, that crush the lives and work of good people.
Wind River offers us no absolution: it shows an unforgiving world, still defined by a frontier that is as much cut through the wild landscape as it is to be found in the morally grey depths of the human soul.