What it's about:
After the body of a girl is found brutally raped and murdered on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, Jane Banner, a rookie FBI agent sent to investigate the murder purely because of her proximity to the reservation, joins forces with Cory Lambert, a white man and wildlife tracker who has lived on the reservation ever since marrying his ex-wife, to solve the crime. The more they dig, however, the more is revealed – not just about the crime but about each other and Wind River itself.
What we thought:
Taylor Sheridan has gone from being a respected, if not overly famous, character actor to a writer responsible for the scripts of two of the greatest crime dramas in recent years. Sicario and Hell and High Water – directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackensie, respectively – mixed the Outlaw Nation feel of your classic westerns with slow-burning, character-driven narratives that ratcheted up the tension while, at the same time, playing fast and loose with the tried-and-true conventions of the crime genre.
Sheridan's latest script continues in this tradition but, as well as Sheridan taking over the director's chair, he moves the action away from well-explored locales like small-town America (albeit a very different kind of small-town America) and the Mexican-American border to something far more interesting. Wind River is a cold, chilly title and the reservation its named after is – at least, as portrayed in this film - a cold, chilly place and one that offers an entirely different kind of wilderness than the kind we usually see in these sorts of films.
Matching the portrayal of life on an “Indian Reservation” in the brilliant comic book series, Scalped by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guerra (the whole thing is available in ten trade paperbacks or five hardcover collections and is well worth tracking down), Wind River may be set in America but it's a part of America so separate from the rest of the country that it might as well be its own republic. It's also clearly significantly less-developed and far poorer than its parent country. Unlike Scalped, though, whose reservation is set on arid land and runs red-hot throughout, even when winter comes, Wind River is ice cold and it's hard to imagine it ever being anything but unforgivingly ice cold.
Not to harp too hard on an old cliché but the Wind River reservation is clearly the main character in the film. The two main human characters - re-teaming the Avengers' Hawkeye/ Scarlett Witch team of Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen – are vividly and complexly drawn and played to perfection by their respective actors but they are overshadowed by the sheer, icy expanse of the locale – and the way that iciness hides some truly horrifying secrets. The plot too, which is, ultimately, fairly rote is subsumed and enhanced by the power of its setting – taking something that could have just been your paint-by-numbers murder mystery and turned it into something that is at once firmly grounded and almost mythological.
Sheridan is not, it has to be said, as accomplished and as singular in his vision as Villeneuve and Mackenzie so Wind River is ultimately the weakest of this particular “trilogy” (its utter lack of humour doesn't help things either, especially after the bitterly funny Hell or High Water) but his mastery as a storyteller has shown no signs of diminishing as he, largely, takes what could be the film's weaknesses and turns them into strengths – especially thematically. The plot, as I said, is overly familiar but he uses that familiarity to drive home the fact that the awful events depicted in the film are not an outlier but something that Native American women have suffered with, over and over again, for untold decades.
Similarly, while the film has been accused in some quarters of being guilty of “white saviour syndrome” as it is told from the viewpoint of white people, it's actually a smart move as it makes it clear that this is an outsider's view of the situation. For everyone from the two main characters (there's still a sense that Renner's character is something of an outsider, even if he has lived much of his adult life on - and even given his own blood to - the reservation) to Sheridan himself to the vast, vast majority of the film's audiences, this is an unfamiliar world and Sheridan is smart enough to realise that fact. A fact that is born out by how the one of major criticisms lobbed at Scalped that has never gone away is that Aaron and Guerra are not Native Americans and have no business trying to construct an insider's view of life on a reservation – especially when it's as unflattering as it was in that particularly violent and ugly neo-noir comic book series.
The one major point I do have against the film, though, is the way it used its female characters – and Elizabeth Olsen in particular. Olsen was typically great and her character was, as mentioned, nicely drawn but there was a sense that she was underused and not overly useful as the story progressed – often taking a backseat to her male co-stars. No doubt this was intentional as a way to show just how much of an outsider she was but it feels like Sheridan is just going over the same ground that he did already and better with Emily Blunt's character in Sicario. Beyond Olsen, for a film that is all about shining a spotlight on the women of Indian Reservations, it was a great loss not to have a greater feminine perspective on these events.
Still, if you're looking to see an icy murder-mystery thriller and your only current options are this or the hot, stupid (and even less kind to women) mess that is The Snowman, there really is no choice at all.