Movie Review: Wind River

Last week I reviewed two German films that I feel are worth watching if only because they deal with groups of people (Kurds and Yenish) whose stories are underrepresented on film. WIND RIVER is another such film, but you should watch it not just because it’s about – and stars – Native Americans but also because it’s a well-crafted film.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner, ARRIVAL) is a tracker with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming. His job is to ensure that the farmers’ livestock isn’t gobbled up by the local predators that live in the forests and mountains nearby. At the film’s outset we find him in full winter camouflage focussing his high-powered rifle on a wolf that has its lustful eyes on a flock of tasty sheep. The symbolism becomes obvious when Lambert is called out to the nearby Wind River reservation to hunt down a mountain lion that’s been attacking their cattle. There, he discovers the body of an Arapaho teenager, frozen to death in the snow, barefoot and miles away from civilisation. When an autopsy reveals that the young woman was raped and was probably trying to get away from someone, the FBI is called in. Arriving on the scene is rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR) from Las Vegas. With the frigid weather and the cold shoulder she receives from the tribe members, she realises that she’s in way over her head so she enlists Lambert’s help to try and find out who killed the teen. The case, though, opens up some yet-to-be healed wounds for Lambert whose own teenage daughter died tragically a few years earlier.

Although WIND RIVER is only actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s second time in the director’s chair (he wrote this screenplay as well), he shows here that he is quite ready and able to make the leap. In this film he masterfully uses the starkness of the wintery plain to evoke the characters’ emptiness and pain. (The blizzard that is seen in the film is the real deal.) Sheridan also wrote the screenplays to SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER, and both films received numerous and well-deserved accolades that included an Oscar® nomination for the latter. When WIND RIVER played at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it received an eight-minute standing ovation and Sheridan himself won the Un Certain Regard award for Best Director. All three of these films are thematically similar in that they deal with the American frontier where, in Sheridan’s neo-Western vision perhaps, the long arm of the law doesn’t quite reach. Here, as we and Agent Banner are told by Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene, DANCES WITH WOLVES), only six law enforcement officers are responsible for an area the size of Rhode Island. (For a local perspective, that’s about ten percent larger than all of Hong Kong.) Though not quite as polished a work as HELL OR HIGH WATER, WIND RIVER does grab your attention from the first scene and holds it tight as Sheridan slowly lays each card down revealing not only the circumstances of the teenager’s tragic demise in the snowy field but Lambert’s back story as well.

Two things bothered me about the script though. The first was that there was a lot of mansplaining going on as Banner was not just the only woman trying to solve the mystery but that she was such a fish out of water too. I get that she is the audience’s surrogate but I would have preferred her character to have been less naïve about Native American culture and American gun culture. The second was that Lambert was a white guy living among the Native Americans and it could be easily argued that he played the White Saviour here. I would have preferred his character to have been Native American – or, even better, a Native American woman. By the same token, I would have preferred Banner to have been a white man. I think it would have made a bold statement by the director but, of course, few people would have gone to see the film in that case.

Given what we got though, I think that the performances all around were superb. Native Canadian national treasure Tantoo Cardinal (DANCES WITH WOLVES) appears as the dead teenager’s grandmother and she, like Graham Greene, is wonderful. These are two actors who just have to stand there to be excellent. They can emote a wealth of emotions just through their facial expressions and quiet demeanours. Sheridan alumnus, Gil Birmingham (HELL OR HIGH WATER) is magnificent as well, as the girl’s father who is shattered both by loss of his daughter and by what has become of his family. In a perfect Hollywood, he would have played Lambert. He certainly deserves a leading role in a film.

The film closes with a sobering statistic, one that apparently prompted Sheridan to write this story. It appears that his vision of the West where injustice thrives is not so far-fetched after all.

WIND RIVER is a really good film. Go see it.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, October 19th at 8:30 am HK time!

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