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Wind River

Wind River is a mystery thriller set in the eponymous Native American reservation in Wyoming. It’s highly remote and sparsely populated, with a tribal police force of six officers to patrol an area the size of Rhode Island. The movie is heavily focused on Native American issues and it features an impressive bench of Native American supporting players (heavily supplemented with actors of various other ethnicities, but still)… yet it’s two white faces on the poster.

*heavy sigh* Yeah, we might as well dive right into this.

To be clear, Elizabeth Olsen’s inclusion makes a lot of sense in context. She’s a highly talented actress in her prime and she’s playing a city girl (from Florida, no less) flown in by the FBI to provide some half-assed show of token support. Putting in an “outsider” character and casting her as a white woman is perfectly reasonable, especially as it’s abundantly clear that while she’s a perfectly capable if inexperienced FBI agent, she’s otherwise out of her element and has to lean heavily on the locals for help. It’s balanced quite nicely and Olsen plays her part well.

Then there’s Jeremy Renner.

Renner plays Cory Lambert, who works with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He’s a hunter who specializes in tracking down and killing predators that are hostile to people and domestic animals. This is our protagonist. He’s the guy who first discovers the dead body (that would be Natalie, played by Kelsey Asbille) frozen in the middle of nowhere and more or less solves the entire case all on his own. Oh, and he also has to deal with the trauma of losing a daughter three years ago in an unsolved murder.

Of course I don’t have a problem with Renner as an actor. Indeed, his work here is thoroughly impressive and he utilizes the same easy kind of rapport with Olsen that the two of them have shown over at Marvel. More importantly, Cory’s ongoing grief over his daughter is exactly the sort of thing that could’ve easily veered into melodrama (and admittedly sometimes does) if it was any other actor in the role, yet Renner beautifully holds the line and makes it compelling. But here’s the thing: The pathos that Renner brings to the character is pretty much all that our hero has.

Without Renner’s impeccable skill at humanizing this character, what we’re left with is a perfectly boring protagonist. Cory always knows what he’s talking about, he finds every valuable clue, he gets every witness to talk, his gunshots never miss… shit, I think he might be the only main character in the whole movie who never even takes a bullet or a punch. He’s also the unerring moral voice of the film, such that even when he does horrific things, it’s presented as a necessary and righteous act: This land’s version of “street justice”, in the absence of any other authority that knows or cares about them.

It’s problem enough that we have such an unfailingly perfect hero. That we have such a character who’s a white man in a Native American-centric film is definitely enough to raise an eyebrow. Given how Cory interacts with the other characters and how his skin color is practically never discussed, there’s definitely a sense that this character was always intended to be among the First People. Though maybe it would be too stereotypical to show a Native American who was also a preternatural tracker? I don’t know.

The bottom line, of course, is that the bean counters figured Jeremy Renner would sell more tickets than Martin Sensmeier (a supporting player here, by the way). But personally, the only name that I cared about on the poster was that of Taylor Sheridan.

Though Sheridan technically made his directorial debut in 2011 with a DTV bit of torture-porn trash called Vile, he’s made an impressive name for himself as a writer in the past few years. He wrote and directed this picture after writing the screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water (and the latter film got him an Oscar nod). I was expecting one hell of a mystery thriller from Sheridan after those few pictures, and Sheridan did not disappoint.

(Side note: Given Sheridan’s recurring theme of “life is pain and everything sucks, so deal with it”, is anyone really surprised that his first movie was about people literally torturing each other?)

It’s truly impressive how Sheridan’s “wild west” sensibilities translate into the snow-covered Wyoming wilderness. There’s still that conservative sense of self-sufficiency, translated into a crushing sense of isolation that makes for good drama. Yet the “wild west” feel is subverted by a sincere effort at portraying Native Americans in an authentic and faithful way, even if a Hollywood picture written and directed by a white man can only go so far in that regard.

Even so, the movie comments on our race relations in some remarkably clever ways. For instance, one character remarks about how the white man banished the Native Americans to the quietest, most remote part of our country; then we came along to dig for oil only to find that we can’t handle the quiet and boredom anywhere near as well as they could. Also, without getting too deep into spoilers about how the mystery plays out, there’s a neat kind of metaphor for how rich white folk committed unspeakable atrocities against the First People. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it makes the symbolic act of justice a lot more satisfying.

I was personally of the opinion that Sicario was far too bleak and did too much to glorify vigilante justice, almost presenting war and brutality as ends in themselves. On the other hand, Hell or High Water was far more effective at striking a balance, portraying unflinching brutality in a way that expressed deeper themes of justice and mortality without losing the humanity of the characters. I’m glad to report that this movie is definitely more of the same from Hell or High Water, even if it never reaches those same lofty heights. What makes the difference is that Hell or High Water at least entertained the notion that the characters were all damned SOBs for their actions while Cory’s vigilante justice is portrayed as perfectly righteous.

That said, Wind River ends with the somber note that we don’t even know how many Native American women go missing every year. This implies that when all is said and done, this movie is a call for help. It’s about people who have to resort to their own brand of justice because nobody from the outside world knows or cares about what’s going on. Until somebody sends in the money and manpower to take care of this problem, it’s going to keep continuing. It brings a kind of desperation to the visceral, white-knuckle action sequences, and that does a lot to make the film more compelling.

Another crucial factor is in the visuals. It’s patently obvious that Sheridan picked up a thing or two about how to shoot the Southwestern deserts, because that same eye for landscapes does all sorts of wonders for the snowy wilderness of Wyoming (or Utah, I suppose, where the film was actually shot). What’s more, Sheridan is a natural at handheld photography. While the camera gets a little shaky in spots, the handheld camera is otherwise judiciously used in a way that I’ve only seen with a handful of other filmmakers. Nicely done.

As for miscellaneous notes, I think Jon Bernthal deserves a mention. He only gets one scene — an extended cameo, really — but damned if he doesn’t make an impression. Kudos are also due to Graham Greene, who admirably plays the chief of tribal police and de facto “adult in the room”; and Gil Birmingham, who turns in a beautifully moving performance as the father of the murder victim.

Overall, I found Wind River to be a perfectly serviceable thriller. The mystery is well-paced and the performances are all solid. The basic premise of a murder in a hostile snow-filled environment makes for some great tension, and the Native American setting is quite effectively used. The leads could certainly have been stronger — I’m especially disappointed that the male lead is so frustratingly perfect and played by a white man — but Renner and Olsen both put in performances strong enough to keep the whole thing afloat.

It’s a nicely intellectual and introspective movie, and a fine directorial debut (no, I’m not counting Vile and neither should you). But it’s still not nearly as good as Hell or High Water. If you’ve seen that film and Sicario and you liked what you saw, definitely give this one a look. Otherwise, I’d recommend watching either of those instead, especially Hell or High Water.

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