Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene
Released in August, 2017
Synopsis: When Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a veteran tracker with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, finds the body of a young Arapaho woman in the snowy wilderness of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the authorities call in a young FBI Agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to assist with the investigation. Jurisdiction and cultural conflicts hinder their search for answers, but Banner is determined to find justice while Lambert hunts down the ghosts of his past.
I heard a review for this film on NPR just before it came out. I don’t remember most of what the reviewer talked about, but the thing that stuck with me was his description of Wind River as “slow”. Though I heard a lot some good things about it from other sources, I declined to see it in the theater.
That was a mistake.
Wind River is a quiet film, set in the frigid, snow-covered mountains of the Wyoming wilderness. It opens in the deep darkness of night with a young woman running barefoot through the snow until she collapses, starts coughing up blood, and dies. The next morning, Lambert (Jeremy Renner) comes across her body while tracking animals as part of his duties for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He recognizes her and contacts the proper authorities. Because it’s a death on reservation lands, the investigation is headed up by FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen), the closest agent to the scene. She flies in from Las Vegas, and it’s obvious to Lambert and the reservation’s lead officer from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Ben (Graham Greene) that Banner is not prepared for a wilderness investigation.
But Banner is not one to give up. Though the autopsy determines that the young woman’s death is not specifically a homicide, it is obvious that her end was a violent one. Banner decides to keep investigating and asks Lambert for his help. But because Banner is out of her depth with the Arapaho people and the rugged mountain terrain, she stumbles, accidentally insulting the family of the dead woman and failing to see clues that are obvious to Lambert.
She learns quickly, though, and while she’s initially unsure of Lambert’s motivations for coming along on this case, when she discovers his reasons she falls into step with him, listens to his advice, and they start to put the pieces together to solve the mystery.
It’s not often that a major Hollywood film leaves the coasts. New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Los Angeles show up over and over in movies, and producers will even venture out to Chicago now and then. But to head into the wilderness and set a procedural crime drama in modern day Wyoming, a state that many people can’t find on a map? That rarely happens. And the setting is, I think, part of why the NPR reviewer thought Wind River was slow. Compared to the frenetic pace of coastal cities, life moves more slowly on the high plains and in the mountains. Storms move quickly and cause delays; the cold kills; straight-line paths do not exist. When Nature is untamed, human lives will invariably slow down to accommodate its whims. There are no frenetic camera movements to speed up the pace, and no car chases to rev up the excitement level. Against mountains and the ever-falling snow, the characters are necessarily small. Their progress at times seems infinitesimal.
But the mystery is not the entire point of the film. Shining a light on the setting for all to see is half of it. The Indian reservations across the U.S. have long been places of poverty and injustice. Government agencies that are supposed to aid the people are often desperately underfunded and understaffed. In Wind River, Jane Banner notes that there are just six people from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to patrol an area nearly twice the size of Delaware. Drugs and crime are everywhere, and despair is as pervasive as the cold. The young woman’s death is certainly not the first to happen in the area.
“Why is it that whenever you people try to help us, you always insult us first, huh?”
Elizabeth Olsen’s performance as FBI investigator Jane Banner is quietly moving. She serves as the average person’s eyes on the strange-seeming world of Wind River. Originally from Ft. Lauderdale, she is out of her element both in the wilderness and among the Arapaho people. She hits a wall at first, imagining that she can question the dead woman’s family the same way she would question a suburban family, but instead she insults the woman’s father and blunders into the mother’s brutal grieving rituals. After the autopsy, when she discovers just how few resources the local law enforcement has and how unlikely it is that anyone will investigate suspicious deaths on the reservation, she is nearly overwhelmed- with anger and despair at this callous system and its lack of justice.
But Banner is not one to stand down, nor is she an inept agent. Though she’s out of her element, she refuses to let circumstances defeat her. She is fully capable of taking charge of a situation and does so flawlessly in the midst of a tense standoff. And when she’s forced to fight for her life, Banner keeps her head together and her priorities straight.
Jeremy Renner’s performance as Cory Lambert is excellent, too. His job takes him into the loneliest stretches of the wilderness for long periods of time, but he does his best to be there for his son and supports his ex-wife’s decisions though they may take her and their son far away. He’s one of those quiet men who can offer brilliant advice not because he’s read it in a book somewhere, but because he’s lived through terrible events. Lambert is a hunter, but he’s not some gun-crazy psycho. He has a great respect for the creatures he hunts down and emphasizes gun safety to his young son, even if he’s just carrying an unloaded BB gun. He’s so even-handed that it’s not strange that people trust him right away. Nor are his actions at the end of the film surprising.
Thanks to its careful pacing, starkly elegant script, sometimes eerie cinematography, and a beautifully minimal soundtrack, Wind River is a surprisingly hypnotic film. It has moments of barbed humor, and even more of raw human emotion. Director Taylor Sheridan treats his characters with respect, whether they’re Arapaho or white, and the answer to the mystery is not at all what you think it will be in the end, and though the ending is satisfying in its justice, you can tell that it’s only the beginning of the healing process for those who have lost someone.
“However far you think she ran, I guarantee you, she ran further.”
Wind River is streaming on Netflix. It is rated R for violence, a rape scene, and other disturbing images.