Wind River is an engrossing (yet not perfect) thriller, and the third in the trilogy of modern Western films written by Taylor Sheridan after Sicario and Hell or High Water. It’s also the first he’s directed, which is evident stylistically in the lean approach he takes to what is shown on screen. You won’t find many dynamic shots or creative blocking — but in a way, the simplicity fits the Western-noir tone of the film, and also gives room for the script and themes to breathe.
The film follows a murder investigation on the Wind River Indian Reservation by Fish and Game tracker Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) — a man haunted by the loss of his own daughter — and rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). There has been a lot of controversy regarding the casting of this film, and that a story so rooted in the Native American experience and history has two white leads. Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and grieving father Martin Hanson (Gil Birmingham) are the only Native actors and characters to get any real amount of screen time. Even the murdered woman the plot revolves around, Natalie Hanson, is played by non-Native actress Kelsey Chow.
There was hesitation in these decisions. I think that Taylor Sheridan was keenly aware of Hollywood’s and the Western genre’s propensity for “white saviour” stories. Early drafts played with the idea, but when it came to the screen, there was at least a self-awareness of the choice made. As one character remarks to Corey after he slips and uses “we” when relating to the struggles of the reserve — “The only thing Indian about you is your ex-wife, and a daughter you couldn’t protect.”
I don’t think the idea that it could be worse is any comfort — but 10 years ago, Jeremy Renner would have been playing a Native character. There is something to the idea too, that things might have gone off the rails and been even more problematic had Taylor Sheridan written this story trying to presume the perspective of a Native main character. While Hollywood definitely needs to open up to more authentic Indigenous stories, for what it is, Wind River treats its subject matter in a way that doesn’t seem exploitative.
There is something haunting about the landscape, the “snow and silence [which are] the only things that haven’t been taken” from the people of Wind River. Yet it’s not entirely grim or foreign; even with storms and heartache raging, the Hanson home on the reserve is like any other middle class home — pictures on the wall of the family, a relative haven of comfort and normalcy. Corey is an outsider to both the land he stalks, and the comfort and community he can’t quite grasp.
Elizabeth Olsen is one of the few frustrating parts of this film; I don’t know whether it speaks about her ability and range, or if Sheridan failed in bringing out the best in his actors. Her character is written as being out of her depth, an outsider to this world who stumbles around, but has good intentions. Yet there was something about her performance that didn’t hit the mark; she strained to hit the emotional notes that the actors beside her managed with ease and subtlety. And on the topic of distracting performances, while I enjoy Jon Bernthal (who has a short but important role), I’m also getting tired of his phoned-in shtick in every movie. Maybe he’s getting typecast, but maybe he only knows how to play the gauntlet of surprisingly charming tough guy in the exact same way, with the exact same reflection and tone in every movie.
I’m not in any place of authority to say whether this film does right by the people and stories it seeks to highlight. What I can say is that aside from a few distractions, it was to me an effective spotlight on the themes of violence against women, exclusion, and our relationship as people with the land.