A tense police procedural and neo-Western, Wind River opens on an icy, moonlit, Wyoming landscape. Writer, producer and director, Taylor Sheridan (the 2016 Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water as well as Sicario) has created another winner.
A terrified Native American teenage girl is running in the snow, barefoot and bleeding. She falls face down, gets up, and runs for six miles before dying from blood filling her lungs. That chilling scene is the opening scene in the true story of Wind River.
On the Wind River Arapaho Reservation we see the main character, Cory (played by Jeremy Renner), barely visible in his white camouflage gear tracking predators in glaring, snow-blinding bright sun. As a US Fish and Wildlife agent on the reservation, the last dead body he expects to find is that of a young woman. He tracks wolves and mountain lions. The lethal cold of Wyoming and the barren natural beauty of its landscape stand in stark contrast to each other: a dangerous and forlorn but beautiful wilderness.
Cory is a man of few words and enormous pain. After losing a teenage daughter himself, he is now estranged from his Native American wife (Julia Jones) but remains devoted to both her and their son, Casey (Teo Briones).
FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson from “Ingrid Goes West” ) flies in from Las Vegas in a severe snow storm to investigate the suspicious death. Sheriff Ben (the astonishing Graham Greene of “Dances with Wolves” and The Green Mile”) must arrange for Jane to borrow winter clothes from one of the local Arapaho women. Jane soon becomes a quick-study in the harsh life on the reservation.
Wind River paints a searing picture of life on society’s margins. Renner and Olsen’s characters both realize that the sense of loss due to a young girl’s death is not the only loss. The cycle of hopelessness and poverty desperately pile up, deep as snow drifts. Outsiders who exploit the natural resources on the reservation and the Arapaho, who feel trapped, reveal a part of society that has long since been forgotten, sometimes willfully so.
Life is tough and the people even tougher. The characters are flawed but relatable. However, a fuller backstory could have created a beating heart to Wind River that would have contributed to the whodunit plot. As a suspense thriller, the violence, revenge, and clues gear the reader for the inevitable dispensing of a frontier “cowboy” justice. It’s a harrowing movie to watch, especially the flashback to the crime itself, but a number of plot holes keep the ending from being entirely convincing or satisfying. I still recommend this film for its exposure to life on a reservation and the tragedies that remain unreported.
Note: At the end of Wind River, there is a note that thousands of Native American women go missing with no reporting or statistics maintained: “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.” Other research shows that the murder rate for Native American women is estimated to be as much as ten times the national average.