Wind River

Posted: September 16, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

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Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye go undercover!

Whilst out hunting wild animals on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming, tracker Cory Lambert (Renner) discovers the body of an 18 year old Native American girl named Natalie Hanson in the middle of nowhere. She has no shoes and isn’t dressed for winter.

It looks like murder, but because the federal government has jurisdiction over capital crimes committed on reservations, the FBI must send an agent in to confirm this. Rookie agent Jane Banner (Olsen) arrives and, together with Cory and Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene), she investigates Natalie’s death.

But in the depths of winter, with a powerful storm on the way, the trio soon discover that blizzards and wildcats are not the only dangers that await them on tribal land.

 

In just a few short years former actor Sheridan has emerged as a powerful screenwriting presence. His first script was Sicario, and he followed it up with last year’s underrated Hell or High Water. Now he adds a directorial string to his bow by serving as both writer and director on Wind River.

Though ostensibly thrillers, all three of Sheridan’s scripts could also be rightly described as modern westerns, and all seem to involve a frontier of some kind, and all three harbour a deeper metaphor. In Sicario it was about the war on drugs, in Hell or High Water it was about farmers losing their livelihoods as the banks foreclosed, and now in Wind river it’s tangentially about the treatment of Native Americans, left to wither away on their reservations. It’s a message pushed home with a statement at the end pointing out that Native American women are the only demographic where no statistics are collected regarding disappearances.

It’s sad then that for a film about the marginalisation of Native Americans, the film itself marginalises them, and for the most part they are portrayed as victims. Sure, Cory has a Native American ex-wife and Native American kids, but he isn’t Native American, and neither is Elizabeth Olsen, and however good the film is—and in places it’s very good, in others not so much but more on that in a minute—this fact is pretty inescapable.

Wind River

“Seriously, Elizabeth, can’t you put in a good word for me with Disney? Marvel must have some Native American superheroes, right?”

This isn’t to say Native American actors don’t get prominent roles, as the tribal police chief Graham Greene is wonderfully sardonic (but then he’s always great in anything he does) and plays the kind of character you’d happily watch a tv show about, and whilst he isn’t in it much, Gil Birmingham impresses as Natalie’s father Martin, adding depth to what could have been a stock stoic warrior.

If I had one problem with Sicario it’s that the film side-lines it’s female lead in the denouncement so a man can go off and exact vengeance, and Wind River follows a similar pattern. In some ways it’s easier to accept in Wind River because clearly Renner is our point of view character, but it still feels a trifle unfair on Olsen who’s very good, managing to tread a fine line between making her FBI agent competent, whilst highlighting her inexperience. She might not always do the right thing, but she’s not incompetent. Sadly whereas Emily Blunt’s character in Sicario felt well rounded, Olsen never quite escapes primarily being a plot device to allow people to explain how things work in the wilderness/Reservation to. She is a strong character, it’s just a shame she wasn’t given more backstory.

Renner is a better actor than people give him credit for, but at time’s he’s hampered a little by a script that primarily wants him to a stoic frontiersman; a loner prone to staring off wistfully into the wilderness. At times Renner plays this very well, but at others it makes the film drag.

This is a slow burn of a film, and it would be incorrect to think of it as a serpentine mystery. What Sheridan is very good at is taking fairly simple plotlines, but making them more than the sum of their parts. I feel like I need to see it again because the first half is quite slow (but then it took a second viewing of Hell or High Water to truly appreciate that film as well). Sheridan is a decent enough director, and whilst the film drags a little in places, we eventually find ourselves with some great scenes later on. There’s a palpable tension at one point which reminded me of Tarantino at his best, and a fantastic gun battle that might well be one of the more realistic gunfights you’ll see in a movie, and it reminded me of how the Gunfight at the OK Corral is supposed to have gone down.

Sheridan and his cinematographer make full use of the snow-covered mountains and thick forests, emphasising the isolation of such an environment and further playing into the notion of the lone gunman bringing order to the wilderness.

There’s some wonderful dialogue and good performances, and the film has some interesting things to say about masculinity and the emasculation of Native Americans, but it’s slow pace and reliance on a white male hero in a film supposedly about Native Americans and women (plus, it’s fair to warn you, the presence of a graphic rape scene) mean that whilst I liked this, I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.

And I can’t shake the feeling that it would have been more interesting if Cory had been played by Gil Birmingham and/or if Jane had been the one to exact finale vengeance, but Sheridan is to be commended for telling simple stories well, and for his 21st Century approach to masculinity, and I remain a big fan of his work.

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“All I’m saying is, maybe you’re a little too obsessed with Braveheart.”

 

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