Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Part mystery, part character study, Wind River is a quiet and somber film about the investigation into a teenage girl’s death on the unsparing landscape of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.
Jeremy Renner (a two-time Oscar nominee who also plays Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) stars as Cory Lambert, a hunter for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He has a certain level of comfort on the reservation because his ex-wife is from there (and his former in-laws still live there). His marriage ended after, a few years earlier, their teenage daughter died. Now, while hunting for lions that have been killing local livestock, he finds the body of Natalie Hanson (played in flashbacks by Kelsey Asbille from MTV’s Teen Wolf), his late daughter’s best friend. The reservation’s police chief (Graham Greene) calls the FBI and they send in inexperienced Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen who plays Scarlet Witch in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Banner had been working in Las Vegas and is unfamiliar with the area. She uses Lambert as her local guide and together they try to discover what happened to Natalie.
Wind River (100 minutes before the end credits) is one of those mysteries that is more about its characters, atmosphere and location than the actual investigation. The film is about how difficult it is to solve a murder on an Indian reservation when the jurisdiction is split between the local police, the reservation police and the FBI (the film ends with a card informing viewers that many Native American women go missing from reservations every year and are not found).
Just as much as that, it is about how difficult it can be for the locals to live in these conditions. It is not just the snow (though it does snow throughout a large portion of the film); it is also the isolation. Late in the film, one of the characters complains that the only things going on around there are the cold and the silence. Between the below-freezing temperatures, the loneliness and the predators (both animal and human), it can be a very dangerous place to live. As Lambert tells another character, there is no luck to help you stay alive in that part of Wyoming; you either survive or you surrender.
Wind River was written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (also an actor best known for his role as Deputy Chief David Hale on the FX show Sons of Anarchy). He also wrote the screenplays for Sicario and Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water (for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay). This film shares with those two a strong sense of place. The oppressive snow and isolation is palpable. In all three of these films Sheridan shows an interest in what drives his characters. They all also have something more on their mind than action or suspense. In this case, Sheridan’s goal is to shine a light on the plight of Native Americans. Specifically, the film focuses on the rampant alcohol and drug abuse as well as the violence against women found on reservations (an opening title card describes the film as based on a true story. Sheridan says his film is actually based on many stories very similar to this one).
Wind River is not the kind of mystery where viewers can play along and guess what happened. It is not a thriller. It is not a whodunit. It is about a man trying to find answers for his neighbors because he cannot find any for himself. It is about a woman learning that solving crimes in this place is not like doing it anywhere else. It is about a land whose inhabitants do not have much hope for the future. The mystery plot itself is not especially strong, but the characterization of this land and its people is sad and powerful.
4¼ out of 5
Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert
Elizabeth Olsen as Jane Banner
Graham Greene as Ben
Kelsey Asbille as Natalie
Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan