Editor Chloe Woods reviews Taylor Sheridan’s murder mystery thriller.
This is a film about pain.
Wind River opens to a girl running in a frozen field, under a white moon. We watch her run and we know she will not survive. From there, the film opens to the bleak and beautiful landscape of Wyoming, snow-bound while the rest of the world undergoes spring. We meet Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) in white sniping gear; a ranger with the Fish and Wildlife Services, employed by the US government, white man with a Native son, he belongs and does not belong and he knows this as intimately as he knows the land he works in. His job is to keep livestock safe by the slaughter of its predators. In his life, death is familiar and unremarkable; in the film, we find the threat of it always present, in some of the most peaceful moments. How to live? When all you have is the land, and the land does not care?
Here humans are weak, and die easily. Here humans are strong, and fight to survive. Corey is marked by his protectiveness not only towards the flocks but towards almost everyone he encounters. We might call this attitude masculinity, honest and fractured; an expression of what we’re trying to describe but usually fail to when we use the word as virtue. There is no judgement or demand here: it simply describes the character of certain people recognised as carrying out certain roles in the community, who mostly happen to be men. For Corey, filling the role he’s learned is his – as a man – means simply that he is capable (of surviving, of making his way in the wilderness), and he will guard those who are not. He will guard them with kind words and he will teach his son to be gentle.
He has failed before in his duty to protect. He has learned there must be some surrender to the whims of fate: perhaps that is why he has kept his mind, and others have not. Because this is, as I say, a film about pain, and there is no mercy here for those who inflict it. They are shown to be pathetic and grovelling and weak. They are those who have broken under suffering to become pitiful and monstrous; less than human; survival is not, after all, only a physical act. There are no excuses for those who take and take, and leave shattered communities and lives behind. That is why the film does not and cannot shy away from the worst violence humans inflict upon each other.
So Corey Lambert walks alone in the wilderness. He guards the sheep from the wolf. Tracking a mountain lion, he finds a dead girl instead, setting off a hunt to find her murderers. Then into the snow-bound landscape stumbles FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). A green, city-born southerner, she makes mistake after mistake, but learns quickly. She attaches herself to Corey like a lost lamb, judging correctly that he can help her bring justice – or whatever passes for justice here – better than the overstretched police department.
I won’t tell you the rest. The most important parts of the film are not necessarily those to be included in a synopsis, and to describe those powerful, quiet moments would be to cheapen them. Wind River exists swathed in snow and the shifting musical soundscape of America, though it is often quiet, and leaves the viewer to read the signs. Not an actor in the film is but perfectly cast. Renner reminds us of his skill in more serious endeavours. Olsen is a blend of frailty, composure and stubbornness; she crashes headfirst through the languid mood with city vibrance, but that’s fitting, since she does not belong.
There might be reservations about a film starring two white leads set on an, um, reservation and revolving around the violence inflicted against the Native American community. But there are always two questions. Does this story deserve to be told? And: has this story been told well? As a film speaking to Native suffering through the eyes of a white man and a white woman, yes, Wind River is a story told well. For the characters’ part, Corey, at least, understands plenty of this: he is not surprised to have the colour of his skin thrown in his face over the careless use of the word “we”. But if it is not his land, the people here are nonetheless his family. Jane, who sees first and foremost a dead girl and a murder she refuses to leave unsolved, seems to have only a passing awareness of the cultural difficulties and trundles into them with a well-intentioned lack of sensitivity. The point – in this film about pain – is compassion. It is that people might help not out of group loyalty or obligation but simply because they see others in need and are in a position to do something about it; that this is the right thing to do; which argument can only be made and sympathised with from the perspective of those with the power, not those who are denied it. So: yes, they’re white people, and this is first and foremost a film for white people, but that is not in isolation a bad thing. While I might wish for three films by Native writers and crew for every one Wind River, I would not wish away Wind River.
If nothing else, it is beautiful.
This is a film about pain. It is about loss, about longing, about grief. It is about boys up to their eyeballs on drugs because they think there’s nothing better available for them; a girl who dreams of meadows; a veteran who promises endless summer to another girl, who will die alone in the cold. It is the hunter alone, dispassionate compassion, and survival. But Wind River does not dwell on those who bring this pain, on their actions, or on their identities; the villains of the piece are briefly-seen, gruesome, and the film sees no need to revel in the portrayal of their actions. This is not a film about violence, though violence permeates it. No, this is a film about pain. About how we bear it. About how we reach out, sometimes, and share it, in the hopeless attempt to lessen its weight. And it is about how, at the ends of the earth, where winter storms overwhelm spring, we find our ways to carry on living.
Wind River is out now in UK cinemas. Trailer below.