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Review: Wind River (2017)

Wind River (2017)

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Premise: A Fish and Wildlife employee (Jeremy Renner) assists an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who is investigating the murder of a native woman near a Wyoming Indian reservation.

What Works: Filmmaker Taylor Sheridan has made a name for himself as a writer of western-influenced crime dramas Sicario and Hell or High Water. Sheridan is both writer and director of Wind River and this film seals his standing as one of today’s most promising new filmmakers. Sheridan’s movies fuse the crime drama and the western genres and tell stories that are uncomfortable and yet satisfying. Much of their uncomfortableness comes from the visceral qualities of the filmmaking and that’s especially true of Wind River. The movie takes place in Wyoming during the winter and the filmmakers capture the crispness and harshness of the season. The vast scenery is beautiful but also intimidating and the soundtrack makes effective use of the crunch of ice and snow as the characters trudge through it. The discomfort of Taylor Sheridan’s films is also due to the way they mix brutal violence with vulnerable human characters. There are lots of movies with violence but in many cases the most extreme violence is visited upon indestructible supermen. In the films of Taylor Sheridan the violence is brutal but the people of his films remain within human dimensions and the violence has both physical and psychological impacts. Sheridan makes judicious use of violence, knowing when to show it and how much to show without being exploitative. Wind River is a movie about the trauma of violence and that is dramatized very well in the movie’s performances. Jeremy Renner is cast in the lead as the Fish and Wildlife employee who finds the body of a native woman and the circumstances of the case recall the loss of his daughter. Renner has played characters like this in other movies like The Hurt Locker and The Town but his role in Wind River is one of Renner’s best performances. The ache of this man’s past pain is evident throughout the movie. Also impressive is Gil Birmingham as the father of the murder victim. Birmingham is reserved but intense and the character’s grief sifts through his performance. The cast also includes Graham Greene as the chief of the tribal police force and Greene adds a wry sense of humor to the movie that alleviates the otherwise dark tone. Another of the impressive qualities of Wind River is its thematic consistency. All elements of this film come together. Wind River is framed around concepts of predators and prey and the unforgiving qualities of nature. The filmmakers then set a murder within that frame and create something unsettling.

What Doesn’t: Wind River selects Jeremy Renner’s Fish and Wildlife employee as its point of view character but the picture might have been stronger if it were framed more closely around Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent. She is an outsider to the region who is charged with leading the investigation and as an employee of the federal government the native people look on her with suspicion. That, as well as the fact that the case involves sexual abuse in a male dominated setting, would make the FBI agent much more interesting as the point of view character. As it is, the agent is not especially characterized. Olsen plays the role well but she isn’t given a background or interests beyond her career and she is frequently passive. The end of Wind River includes a coda about the plight of native women and the violence that they face. While the film is based on true events that involve violence against Native American women, the film doesn’t actually say any more about misogyny than the average episode of CSI.

Bottom Line: Wind River isn’t always pleasant to watch but it is terrifically made. It has strong acting and assured directing in a well told crime drama that has much more depth in its themes and characters than we usually get in this kind of film.

Episode: #662 (August 27, 2017)