“Wind River” is Taylor Sheridan’s third film writing project, following “Sicario” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016). “Wind River” follows the same brutalist formula of his other two films, this one being the chilling story of a homicide on a Native American reservation in the most remote territory in Wyoming.
Sheridan tells the story of Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), an FBI agent assigned to investigate the murder of a young Native American woman. Arriving from her post in Las Vegas, Banner is totally unprepared for the bitterness of Wyoming winter, mirroring the audience’s feeling of a deep chill from the circumstances.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a federal wildlife officer, working as a tracker and hunter of livestock predators. He finds the body of Natalie, the murdered woman, and assists Banner in tracking the killer. Renner exemplifies the role of the hard cowboy, pulled into service by a tragedy in his past.
The dialogue throughout “Wind River” is spare but hard-hitting. Sheridan relies on gritty, often shocking crime scenes and Renner’s stony inflections to carry the mood. Although the story arc relies on the emotions relayed by the cast, they all manage to avoid overacting. A change in facial expression from anyone is rare, but the audience is never left in the dark over Bannon’s and Lambert’s reactions to the sharp twists of the film.
One pitfall of an otherwise phenomenal thriller is the distracting soundtrack. The bleak attitude held through the film would have been complemented by a less invasive score. There are several scenes when the audience is left processing a gruesome shootout only to be interrupted by the abrupt beginning of a song.
The most important theme of “Wind River” is our country’s marginalization of Native American issues. There is no full documentation of Native American women who have disappeared, as explained in the last minutes of the film. Every other demographic has thorough records of all missing persons.
Native American disappearances are often attributed to alcoholism, and law enforcement will rarely start a full investigation. “Wind River” explores this through the representation of the tribal police department. Ben (Graham Greene) is the chief of the severely understaffed police department on the reservation. When Banner asks to bring in backup, he tells her that Wind River isn’t the kind of place that gets backup. When Ben, Banner and Lambert go to the sheriff to get help investigating at a nearby oil drilling station, Banner remarks on there only being six deputies in an area the size of Rhode Island.
For a movie about Native Americans in which both protagonists are white, Sheridan deftly avoids the white knight syndrome that afflicts many similar films. Lambert is not portrayed as any better off than any of the beaten-down residents of the reservation. Sheridan sticks to the reality of what the sidelining of Native American societies looks like.