Every once in awhile a film comes out that’s so not fun to watch that everyone should see it. This isn’t because this film is so-bad-it’s-good, or gory or disturbing. It’s not fun to watch because it tells us something that we wish we didn’t know. It shows us something real in the world. It ceases to be a movie and becomes a public service announcement, ceases to be just mere entertainment and becomes education. Wind River is such a film.
And how ironic it is that a movie about the neglected and ignored people on Native American reservations goes through theaters unnoticed, even with two Avengers helming the lead roles. This is even more unusual considering the recent success of the films writer and director, Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan wrote 2015’s Sicario and was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay with 2016’s Hell or Highwater. Wind River marks Sheridan’s directorial debut as well as the conclusion in what he considers to be a loosely connected trilogy (the other two being the two films previously mentioned), that explores the weight of fatherhood and the lawlessness of places on the edge of American society.
The film is set on the modern day Native American reservation Wind River, one of the most dangerous reservations in America. A hunter for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, played by Jeremy Renner, finds a young woman of Native American descent dead in the snow, miles away from civilization and clearly running for her life. A young, inexperienced FBI agent, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is sent to the reservation to help local police solve the case. Olsen and Renner soon team up to help solve the grisly murder.
From there spirals a shocking tale that evokes visceral anger out of the audience. The brilliant conceit of the film is that the events that take place in the film are presumed to happen on actual reservations with a sickening frequency. A large percent of Wind River’s inhabitants are unemployed, and there are far higher rates of alcoholism and drug abuse. This problem is exacerbated by complicated relationships with federal police. Officially, Native American on Native American crime can only be prosecuted by tribal police, which possess inadequate resources due to the poverty that plagues many reservations. In the film Olsen tells us that the federal officers that are available are few and far between, with only six officers to patrol an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. This complex bureaucracy is demonstrated in one of the most confusing armed standoffs in film, wherein federal police and white reservation residents hold each other at gunpoint while arguing on the legality of the U.S. police being there in the first place. The final blow comes at the end of the film in a white-text statistic that knocks the wind out the audience. This film’s credits will certainly have one of the highest audience participation rates, as that ending reveal will leave many to linger, silently fuming in the theater long after the film has ended.
All of this is helped along by the well-written dialogue and excellent acting. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, who play Hawkeye and The Scarlet Witch in the Avengers films, respectively, play their roles with maturity and believability. Renner gives the best performance of his career, nailing the western accent critical to make his neo-western cowboy character work. The rest of the cast does a fine job as well. Apesanahkwat, who plays the teenage murder victim’s father, gives a haunting and powerful performance while Gil Birmingham, who plays a local police officer, is quietly intimidating and feels genuine.
A scene involving Renner’s past showcases the best acting in the film, providing a soft and somber for the audience to prepare for the chaos and horror of the final sequence of the film. This sequence ends up being the best part of the film, expertly mixing tragedy and catharsis. There is a real pertinence to the violence in the final act, which wisely avoids shifting its tone to an action movie. This is a film where gunshots sound like gunshots and action scenes feel more like tragedies you read in the paper.
The one downside to the movie is its overuse of melodramatic music. The tragic sounding music seeks to superimpose emotion onto scenes, and it often takes the viewer out of the film. Letting the scenes simply play out without telling the viewer how to feel would have been a wiser choice. In a movie that seeks to be grounded in reality, it would have been far more effective to let the sounds of our world populate the screen to achieve a sense of realness.
This is a small complaint when compared to the skill and care exemplified in every other aspect of the film. Wind River is a first-rate film that everyone should see at least once. It kicks open the door of our warm, comfortable worldview, allowing its chilling message to rush in and leave our faces frozen.
Featured Image by The Weinstein Company