Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario and Hell or High Water) completes his loosely linked American West trilogy with his directorial debut, Wind River. Travelling deep into the mountains of Wyoming, this film has all the traditional makings of a thriller. Though, more importantly, Wind River highlights the issue of undocumented violence against Native American women.
In short, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the body of a young girl buried deep in the snow-covered wilderness of the Wind River Indian Reservation. When the FBI sends Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a young, ill equipped agent who is ignorant to the realities of life on the reservation, conflict emerges and Jane finds herself relying on Cory and Ben (Graham Green), the local sheriff, to solve the murder.
Tensions are high in Wind River. Locals oppose Cory, who married into the reservation through his wife Wilma (Julia Jones), when he attempts to use “we” when referring to the traumas and challenges reservation life. Jane is up against the entire reservation. Her race, gender, and lack of awareness of reservation life are an insult to the severity of the crime. As for Martin Hanson (Gil Birmingham), the father of the murdered daughter, Ben, and the Wind River Indian Reservation, they’re up against the system set up for them to fail.
Stunning wide shots position the setting as a central character. The landscape foreshadows with its unforgivingly harsh and beautifully snow-capped, jagged mountains. The land, and the way in which the camera captures it, calls attention to the bleak and desolate outlook of its characters. Hopelessness is a common theme. Sheriff Ben matter-of-factly points out, “This isn’t a land of backup,” when referring to the lack of government support. “This is a land of you’re on your own.”
Wind River is beautifully paired with a score created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that melodically mirrors the grief felt throughout. Cory, whose marriage to Wilma ended when their daughter went missing, seeks a conclusion to what feels like never ending distress. His story overlaps with Martin’s, as their families are linked by their late daughter’s friendship. While these two men share a common thread, the film emphasizes the circumstantial differences between them. Cory chose that environment, while Martin was born into it, and thus Martin’s family and entire being have been built on and affected by the reservation.
Wind River is a captivating, suspenseful story of grief. Gil Birmingham, though not on screen as often as I would have liked, is a scene-stealing highlight of the film, as he was in Hell or High Water. Wind River provides all of the essentials of an exciting thriller while calling attention to an unspoken problem in need of addressing. At the end of the film, viewers are informed that despite the level of violence, there are no statistics available that document the rate in which Native American women are abused and go missing. This summer has been chock-full of original films that are far from traditional summer superhero blockbusters, like The Big Sick, Baby Driver, The Little Hours, It Comes at Night, and Atomic Blonde. Wind River is a definite addition to that list.
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Samantha Ladwig is a writer, book reviewer, and the owner of Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington. Her work has been published by New York Magazine, Bustle, Real Simple, Vice, Bust Magazine, and others. Find her at www.samanthaladwig.com.