Wind River (2017)
Release Date: August 4th, 2017 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Taylor Sheridan Actors: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, Teo Briones, Gil Birmingham, Althea Sam
ind River” is inspired by actual events, which is to say that it’s probably 100% fiction. Opening with this line is instantly problematic, since the notion of basing movies on real life happenings has become more and more corrupted. After all, a film like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was staged to seem like it was ripped straight from the headlines.
This particular tale takes place in an unusual setting: the snow-capped Wyoming territory of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The conspicuous white man at the center of the plot is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an expert tracker (again, a curious career choice), who deals with the baggage of a death in his family, which contributes to a failed marriage and the stresses of parenting his son Casey (Teo Briones). Cory’s initial character development is relegated to arguing with his ex about her new job, a rise in child support, and generically training his son to confidently ride a horse.
As an officer for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Cory is employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Tribal Police to hunt down a pesky lion, which has been consuming livestock in the vicinity. While scouting, he comes across the corpse of a young woman – 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), who was a good friend of the family. Initial evidence suggests that she was raped, before then fleeing barefoot into the snow for many miles before finally succumbing to the harshness of the cold.
“What were they thinking sending you here?” With concerns over the situation, Tribal Police Chief Hank (Graham Greene) calls in the FBI, hoping for a seasoned investigator. Instead, he gets Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a fresh-faced, inexperienced young woman who just happened to be the closest agent in the area. And her job is merely to get the medical examiner to sign off on the homicide so that her superiors can send in a proper team of detectives. But when it becomes clear that reinforcements aren’t going to be issued, Jane recruits Lambert to help her solve the case.
The snowbound setting presents its own rarities, amplified by the use of a Native American reservation and the socioeconomic issues related to this patch of hellish land. There’s a message about the unfairness of their lives, their limited situations, and the racism they face from outsiders, but the film uses the uncommon filmic locations and its inhabitants as an excuse to slow down the story. At the beginning, it isn’t terribly concerned with realistic race relations drama. And the murder/mystery setup itself isn’t too far removed from “The Silence of the Lambs,” but with an unhurried nature that absolutely doesn’t match this concept.
Jane is out of her element, but she’s still a strong woman. Unfortunately, she’s forced to give up screentime to Renner, who, though amusing as a serious soldier, prevents her from being as significant as she could have been. They’re both depressed, miserable characters following a trail of depravity, which weighs on the entertainment value of the story, but the dour mood is nothing next to the shift in narrative. Rather than allowing audiences to solve the case alongside the investigators, “Wind River” eventually reveals to the audience information that Lambert and Banner don’t receive. At that point, the picture shifts into an actioner, robbing viewers of an intellectual payoff. Destruction and revenge are still satisfying, separately, but they don’t fit with the slow-burn murder/mystery that kicked things off.
“This isn’t the land of ‘Backup.’ This is the land of ‘You’re On Your Own.’” Though the act of solving the crime stalls, there’s still excitement at the finale worthy of a look. It doesn’t conform to the sequences that came before it, but it’s an effective bit of suspense reminiscent of the tone and endeavors seen in “Sicario” – which is no coincidence, since writer/director Taylor Sheridan penned the screenplay for that 2014 thriller as well.
– Mike Massie