OPINION: A Look Back at Wind River - Enduring The Environment
Wind River is a thrilling drama that follows a rookie FBI agent and a game tracker with deep community ties to investigate the mysterious death of a local girl on a remote Native American reservation. Wind River is the third installment in a thematic trilogy started by screenwriter Taylor Sheridan with Sicario and Hell of High Water. Wind River is Sheridan’s first directorial piece and it’s as perfectly executed as his screenplays. The film explores a number of themes including how someone copes with loss and grief, what your environment can do to you, and how justice and survival are impacted in a land outside the normal boundaries of law.
Jeremy Renner plays game tracker and hunter Cory Lambert who lives on the Native American reservation Wind River in Wyoming. Cory is willingly pulled into the investigation of the death of a local girl Natalie by Elizabeth Olsen’s character, Jane, who I’ll get to more later. Cory’s daughter died in a similar way to Natalie and so the discovery of her body greatly affected Cory. Though most of his performance is restrained and subtle, I think this is one of the best outings of Renner’s career. Renner is able to convey a sense of purpose and understanding while also bringing a layer of heartbreak and pain. Cory has a set goal for most of the film; to hunt and bring justice to those who murdered Natalie, but his journey while trying to achieve this goal is impactful and can be cathartic to see. Natalie’s death amplifies Cory’s grief and pain over the loss of his daughter, and his search for answers about how to cope with this loss is one of the key themes in the film.
Elizabeth Olsen plays rookie FBI agent Jane Banner who just so happens to be the nearest agent to the Wind River reservation. Olsen also delivers one of the best performances of her career. She embodies an incredibly strong-willed, intelligent and capable woman that just wants to do the right thing. Jane is in some ways our window into the world of Wind River. She is completely out of her element and in over her head, though not for a lack of intelligence or will, but for a lack of experience and understanding of her new environment. A ruling in 1978 made it impossible for tribes to arrest non Natives on Native American soil, instead the federal government has to be involved, hence Jane’s appearance. The problem presented in Wind River is that the cause of death can’t legally be ruled a murder and so Jane is unable to call for backup to open an investigation.
Jane is stunned and appalled at the lack of help and isolation this community experiences, but everyone there is used to it. The land is extremely harsh and unforgiving which makes the people on it easier to forget. This is one of the factors that leads this land to take a semblance of lawlessness, and is what transforms what would normally be an investigation into more of a hunt. This creates the pairing of hunter Cory and FBI agent Jane, and their relationship allows the exploration of many of the themes in the movie including the lawlessness of the land, the mistreatment of the people, and the lives of crime and violence the environment has driven some of the people living here to.
I’ve mentioned the land and how vast and harsh it is already but it acts almost like it’s own character in this film and it’s probably my favorite part of this movie. I love cold and mountainous settings to begin with and the way Wind River uses this element is perfect. There are a lot of establishing scenic shots that show just how vast, bleak, harsh, and beautiful the land here is. It also serves to show how insignificant these characters are in this unforgiving wilderness. The terrain and weather also serve as antagonists, either preventing characters from achieving goals or otherwise impeding their paths, or by driving characters to certain actions because of the stress and strain the environment has put on them. The locale here is something I’ll never get tired of looking at and it’s impact on the characters and plot cannot be understated.
The sense of isolation and the overwhelming difficulty to survive in such a harsh environment has driven a lot of people to violence to achieve their goals. Whether it be a controlled sense of violence from Cory, who has become a hunter to cope with his daughters death and find some form of closure. We also see several different antagonists throughout the film resorting to violence simply because it’s the easiest solution and the survival instinct this environment nurtures has brought violence to the forefront.
Though this isn’t an action movie the action, when present, is some of the best I’ve ever seen. There are a couple of heart pounding, breath stealing, edge of your seat intense moments that are some of the best in film. One in particular had me whispering “That’s why I go see movies” to myself the first time I saw it in theaters. The movie is paced out phenomenally well, with a bit of unconventional storytelling that I think works perfectly in it’s use of tension and narrative weight. Another aspect that really pulls this whole package together is the score. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis deliver a beautifully haunting and ominous score that marries wonderfully with both the environment and story taking place. It heightens everything in the film - increasing intensity, delivering emotion, and amplifying awe in all the right places.
Wind River presents a lot in it’s tight 107 minute run-time. It asks questions about grief and what tragedy does to a person. It explores what an environment can do to the people living in it, and how life is impacted when the normal laws of government and justice don’t work the way they’re intended. It shows what is necessary for survival in terrain unfit for survival. Wind River deals with deeply unsettling and tragic events and asks how people endure them. It opens up a dialogue on the abandonment and mistreatment of many Native Americans. It is a profoundly impactful and moving work set in the beautiful, stark, and unforgiving modern American frontier.